“It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” (Robert Lipsyte, “Boys and Reading: Is there Any Hope?“)
(I hear you, Toph)
I like giving my younger brother (R) books. Correction: I really like giving my younger brother books. And he loves reading, so we’re quite compatible. Well played, universe!
Anyway. The last time I took R on a book-buying expedition, it took us three hours to narrow down the choices. By the end, we were down to two options: Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, which I described as “Jane Austen if all of Jane Austen’s characters were dragons! Tea time meets DRAGONS” and Malinda Lo’s Huntress, which I described as “Adventure! Fairies! Hunting! Lesbian romance! More adventure! HORSES!”
(My eloquence: admire it)
At some point in R’s difficult decision, I swooped in with big-sister wisdom: “You know, I’m worried you won’t enjoy Tooth and Claw as much. Don’t get me wrong – I love it. But it’s not really an adventure story. It’s basically a family story, and about people’s relationships and marriages. Except with dragons.”
My younger brother gave me a Look: “No, but that’s what I like.”
Brother: “Those are my favorite kinds of books! I like reading about families, and about how people relate to each other.”
This would be the moment I massively facepalmed.
I’m a feminist. I think about idiotic gender roles a lot. I try to avoid perpetuating sexism as much as I can. I especially try to avoid perpetuating stupid gender roles around my brother. And I have always believed that there is no such thing as a “girl” book and a “boy” book.
Yet I assumed my brother would like an adventure book more than he would a family-drama book.
Because he’s a thirteen-year-old-boy.
Me, to brother: “… just ignore me, I’m an idiot.”
Conclusion of the story: I ended up buying R. both books, because I am the best sister on the planet
(Yes! yes I am aware of how awesome I am! But more accolades are always welcome!).
He loved Huntress, like I thought he would. But he loved Tooth and Claw even more. He sent me an email from his vacation where he told me it was now “one of his favorite books.” And when I saw him again, he asked me if I could lend him my Jane Austen novels.
Because Tooth and Claw had inspired him to read Jane Austen.
(I really love Jane Austen, okay?)
This post is not about how gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn – although it could be, since that is a true and important topic. Gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn! Even for feminists! Tell your friends.
It is, as all my favorite posts are, about my brother. My brother read a lot. And as it happens, a fair number of the books he reads either a) are written by women b) have female protagonists, or c) center on “girl” issues like “family” and “relationships.”
This fact makes him the Miracle Boy Foretold By the Prophecy. Because boys can’t read girl books. Didn’t you get the memo?
[Note: In this post, I will use the term “girl” books to designate books that are USUALLY ASSOCIATED with women, either because they were written by women, have female protagonists, or tackle subjects that are coded as feminine (gossip! pink!). I don’t mean to imply that there are actual “girl” books and “boy” books. Books are for everyone! I promise! They don’t have cooties!]
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young boy who desires to read must be in want of a “boy” book. However little known the feelings or views of such a boy may be on his first entering a bookstore, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adults that he is carefully kept away from any book with the slightest whiff of the feminine about it.”
Okay, that’s not the first line of Pride and Prejudice, BUT IT COULD BE.
One of the most frustrating myths floating around the world of reading is the “boys aren’t reading because there are too many girly books, and boys can’t read girly books because EVERYONE KNOWS boys can’t read girly books.”
And sadly, this narrative just keeps popping up out of the fertile internet ground every thirty seconds. Like zombies! Or DAISIES. or ZOMBIE DAISIES.
Robert Lipsyte’s self-congratulatory and entirely unimaginative article for The New York Times deplores the explosion of YA aimed towards girls because “while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” Meanwhile, YA author A. E. Rought called female protagonists a “trope” they hoped the publishing industry would get over. Then Sarah Mesle wrote an article for the LA Review of Books where she expresses concern at the proper lack of “male roles” for boys.
Hell, just yesterday, I was treated to an article that deplored the lack of male protagonists, because the author was sick of girls who only cared about gossip and instead wanted a boy protagonist who just wanted to put gas in his car.
SO MANY ZOMBIE DAISIES.
Okay, first off, I want to make sure our facts are straight. Because it is provably not true that there are no YA books “for boys.” In fact, there are still more male protagonists than female ones in YA. There are just about as many male authors as there are female ones. THESE ARE THE FACTS, PEOPLE (here is one study, among many). And it is depressing as hell that people look at women achieving parity in one field – ONE FIELD – and interpret it as men being blotted out.
By the time I was ten, I had a plan. I would make it a point to give him books with female protagonists. On his birthday, on Christmas, at random occasions – I would give him books with girls. I would give him books about girls. I would give him books by women. I would give him books about “girly” topics like family and gossip and clothes.
Not to mention books with kickass women being kickass!
I wouldn’t force him to read them. And I wouldn’t deprive him of books with male protagonists either. I would simply make sure he had lots of access to “girl” books.
It was a deviously simple plan.
And it worked.
Of the books my brother reads, I’d say somewhere near 50-60% have female protagonists. The first chapter book my brother ever read was Roald Dahl’s Mathilda. His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl” after Dianne Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle. He loves Lyra from The Golden Compass. He reads Tamora Pierce and Libba Bray and Meg Cabot and Diane Duane. He will talk for hours about Robin Mckinley and the Blue Sword novels. His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl.” Right now, his favorite authors include NK Jemisin, Jo Walton, Octavia Butler and Mira Grant.
Don’t get me wrong, the brother reads a lot of “boy” books too (one of his other favorite authors is China Mielville, and his favorite novel is Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk). But R. has never complained about a book with a female protagonist. To him, they’re just as normal as books with male protagonists. And it would never occur to him not to pick up a book because the author was female.
And now he’s even recommending books by female authors TO ME. It was my brother who first discovered Mira Grant, and who pestered me until I read her (and I never looked back).
THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT WORKED!
YES I AM THE EVIL FEMINIST ALL YOUR FRIENDS WARNED YOU ABOUT.
I can’t stress how easy this “experiment” was. I mean, it was easy because I started early, before all the societal sexism could sink in. But it’s not like my brother’s Y chromosome was allergic to “girl” cooties. So whenever I read a Robert Lipsyte, say, spouting the old ” teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters” line, I roll my eyes pretty hard.
You know what? I’ve got a teenage boy in my life, and he reads “girl” stuff just fine. My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.
Boys don’t read “girl” books because they’re taught, in a thousand small, subtle, insidious ways, that they’re not supposed to.
What if boys weren’t ashamed to read books that were coded “girly” because they didn’t think it was shameful to be a girl? (thanks, Iggy Pop!)
What if we taught them something else?
Think about it.
Quick story to wrap things up!
So, obviously I’m a feminist. And I read lots of feminist fiction. And since my brother steals all my books, he ends up reading quite a bit of feminist fiction himself.
On the other hand, I’ve never told my brother he *should* be a feminist, or that he needs to combat sexism or anything. Because I don’t want to tell him what to think.
One night at dinner a few years ago, my stepbrother started teasing my stepmother about the muscles in her arms. My father said: “Stepbrother! It’s rude to discuss women’s arm muscles.”
And I, the random feminist, replied: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with discussing women’s arm muscles, since there’s nothing wrong with women having arm muscles. But teasing people about their appearance isn’t okay.”
My brother: “Yeah, Dad. Because you know what me and Suzanne are into? FEMINIST SCIENCE FICTION. So if you say sexist stuff, we’re going to get super-mad!”
After I finished dying of laughter, I knew that giving my brother “girl” books to read had been worth it. MY EVIL FEMINIST PLANS HAD ALL COME TO FRUITION.
THE FEMINIST BORG HAD ASSIMILATED HIM.
[No, but in all seriousness, I was super-proud of him. I mean, once I stopped laughing]
Scary Feminist Out!
1. I should note that as I got older and more aware, I also made a conscious effort to steer my brother toward books with protagonists of color and queer protagonists. Which worked out quite well!
2. I want to be clear that just because this “experiment” (such as is) worked for me, it doesn’t mean it would work for everyone. There was a whole lot of privilege and luck that went into it! Like the fact that I started when the brother was super-young. And that he turned out to love reading. And that both he and I had lots of time and opportunities to read, and were both encouraged to do so. This is not supposed to be a how-to for how to get boys to read more. Nor is it meant to be a critique of people who can’t get the boys in their life to read more. If that doesn’t comes across, let me know, and I will fix it!
3. My brother has been fully aware of the “experiment” since he was seven or eight. I promise, I’m not manipulating him behind his back. We’ve had conversations about it, where I ask whether he’s okay if I keep giving him books by women/with female protagonists and he’s like “So… you’re asking if I’m okay with you giving me books? Is this some kind of evil trick?”
4. Hey, notice all the Avatar: The Last Airbender GIFs? The Feminist Philosopher introduced me to the show, and I just finished watching it. IT IS AWESOME, and full of awesome male and female characters AND YOU SHOULD ALL GO WATCH IT. NO, SERIOUSLY, DROP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING AND GO WATCH THE SHOW.
Thank you, Feminist Philosopher. I will forever blame you when I tear up at GIFs of Zuko and Uncle Iroh hugging.
Interesting thing you might not know about me: I often think in colors. In my head, for example, Jane Austen’s Emma is saffron-red (while Pride and Prejudice is yolk-yellow). English literature as a subject is a foggy blue. My first year of middle school in France evokes orange tones. My Future Wife makes me think of purples and browns.
And sexual harassment is bright lime-green and noodle-yellow.
Okay, I get that was a bit of a random tangent. Everyone’s very confused. Everyone’s all “Uh, C.D., why is sexual harassment lime-green and noodle-yellow in the bizarre color-lexicon of your brain?”
Faithful reader, I will tell you. You see, a year ago, I got a summer job as a waitress/cashier/garnisher/busser/whatever at a local Noodles and Company.
You will note the presence of green! There are a lot of green decorations and signs and things at Noodle and Company. Also a lot of yellow, what with the omnipresence of noodles.
So when I think of Noodles and Company, I think of green and yellow.
… I see you using that deductive reasoning, dear reader! You are thinking “C.D. says sexual harassment makes her think of yellow and green, and Noodles and Company was yellow and green, so she must have been sexually harassed at Noodles and Company! LOGIC.”
And hey, if that was your thought process, you’d be right! I was sexually harassed at Noodles and Company, and that is why I associate yellow and green with sexual harassment!
The summer-before-last, your faithful blogger (me) got a job at Noodles and Company, where she pulled long hell-shifts of doom (eight hours behind a cash register… one fifteen minute break… blaaaargh) and got paid a ridiculously small amount of money.
But hey, I have to admit, I enjoyed the work. If the pay hadn’t been so terrible, I would go so far as to say I enjoyed the experience.
Well, okay. That’s not strictly accurate. I would have enjoyed the job if:
a) the pay had been better and
b) I had not been confronted with The Gentlemen Groper
I didn’t particularly like the Gentleman Groper. In fact, I rather loathed him. He didn’t do his job; he avoided managers; he was rude to customers; he made inappropriate jokes; he made life more difficult for everyone on his shift.
I was not a fan.
But whatever. I gritted my teeth and indulged in fantasies of chopping him up into noodle-garnish, meanwhile reminding myself that he was only seventeen, and that he might – MIGHT – eventually get over it.
And then he started poking me.
Sadly, I’m not talking a casual, one-time, “Hey, look at the giant Elephant eating the kangaroo over there!” poke.
The Gentlemen Groper (who should really be called The Gentlemen Poker, but that would ruin the alliteration) usually targeted my waist, my torso or my arms. His charming technique was to poke me until I yelped, and then giggle.
And he would not stop.
I’m not kidding, he would do this like, five or six times an hour. It was ridiculous (it also meant he wasn’t doing his job, which meant *I* was doing his job… all while getting poked).
Because all terrible things must get worst, the poking evolved.
After a few days, any time there was an excuse to touch me, the Gentlemen Groper took it. Dish to garnish? He grabbed my wrist to correct my sprinkling technique. Customer to talk to? He’d steer me towards them by grabbing my waist, even when I pushed him away. A break in the customer madness? Then it was time for spontaneous hugs! Eventually, he started pinching my arms and “accidentally” brushing against my breasts and ass.
And the poking continued.
Now, in “real life,” – in situations where I can’t get fired for punching people – things might have ended rather painfully for the Gentlemen Groper.
Because I am the Feminist Batwoman, and All Shall Fear My Wrath.
But I was at work, where stepping on The Gentlemen Groper’s foot or pinching the nerves in his forearms would not go over well. [hey, I knew a lot about self-defense. Where do you think I got these mad batwoman skillz from?)
So I tried a different technique:
“Please stop touching me.”
“Gentlemen Groper, stop poking me.”
“Listen to what I am saying to you. You need to stop touching me.”
“I don’t want you to hug me. Don’t hug me.”
“Don’t grab my arm, Gentlemen Groper.”
“Stop. Touching. Me.”
“You do not have my permission to touch me.”
“Gentlemen Groper, I’m not kidding. Stop touching me.”
“Don’t poke me.”
I kept my voice low and serious. I refused to laugh. I did everything the textbooks on harassment say to do: I was clear, concise and forceful. And I’m pretty sure I used every variation on “stop” in the book.
None of them worked. The Gentlemen Groper would just laugh, and accuse me of being oversensitive. A few minutes later, he’d touch me again, and I’d suppress the urge to scream.
I told my friends and parents about the harassment. They were all supportive, especially my mother (who offered to come to the store and threaten the Gentlemen Groper with the force of her awesomeness), but at some point in our conversation, she said what I’d dreaded hearing ever since the harassment started:
“You know, maybe he’s just really bad at flirting.”
There is a difference between harassment and flirting. I don’t care how terrible you are at flirting, the words “no” and”stop” always, always, ALWAYS mean STOP. And if you refuse to stop, then it’s not flirting anymore.
But even if I knew my mother was wrong, there was a reason I’d been dreading the flirting line. I was afraid. I was afraid that my supervisors wouldn’t see the Gentlemen Groper’s behavior as harassment. Or that my harassment wasn’t bad enough to “count” as real. That it would just be interpreted as harmless flirtation. That I would be accused of making waves for no reason.
So I didn’t ask to file a harassment form.
Instead, I started having minor panic attacks every time anyone came near me at my job. I was tense for entire shifts, waiting for the pokes and gropes and hugs that (inevitably) came. When work was done, I noticed that my muscles were actually sore with pain because I’d been holding them tight for so long. I approached shifts with the Gentlemen Groper by putting on tunnel-vision glasses so I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my job and the words I would (inevitably) need: “Stop.” “Don’t touch me.”
I used to love closing the restaurant; now, I hated working late at night. Closing shifts meant there was no one in the store except me, the Gentlemen Groper, and a manager. No witnesses. Worse was all the space between me and my bike, out in a dark parking lot with no one around. If the Gentlemen Groper wouldn’t stop touching me in public, what would he do in private, at night, where no one could see? How far would he go?
Once I got on the bike, though, I felt safe – finally. I’m a fairly fast rider at the best of times, but fear of the Gentlemen Groper made me exponentially faster.
I was safe.
Until the next shift.
There was a point when I actually started timing how long it took for me to get from the restaurant door to my bike.
That’s when I knew I was terrified.
That’s when I knew something had to be done. This was not okay. I couldn’t go through more shifts of constantly being touched. I couldn’t go through more shifts of wondering if things would get worse. I needed to do something.
Unfortunately, I was still too scared to file an official harassment report. So I did the next best thing. I started making a point of saying “No,” in front of managers. That way, I thought, they’d see what was happening, and they would back me up.
Oooh boy, was I wrong.
My new strategy worked about as well as my old one. I made sure to stick around the managers, so they wouldn’t be able to miss the Gentlemen Groper’s actions. Then Gentlemen Groper would poke me, or grab me, and I’d say “Gentlemen Groper, I’ve said this a hundred times. You need to stop touching me.”
I’d steal a glance at the managers to make sure they’d heard me. They had.
But they didn’t back me up.
Most of the managers said nothing, either to me or to the Gentlemen Groper. Worse, some of them encouraged him.
Once, when I told the Gentlemen Groper I didn’t like being touched, a manager started laughing, telling the Gentlemen Groper I was playing “hard to get.”
After another poking incident, the Gentlemen Groper said: “I just poke you because I like you!”
To which a manager near us said: “Bet you don’t have any good replies for that one, C.D. He’s got a good point!”
Good point? GOOD POINT? I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that the Gentlemen Groper’s good disposition towards me gave him unrestricted access to my body. I thought *I* was the only one who could grant that access.
From those interactions, it was pretty clear to me that management just did not care. Correctly or not, I assumed that if I filed a formal complaint, the reaction would be the same – indifference or worse.
Discouraged, but not yet defeated, I continued my campaign of snapping at the Gentlemen Groper every time he touched me. I might not be able to stop him, but damn it, if I was going to deal with panic attacks, I was at least going to get the satisfaction of telling him off.
And it turned out I’d been wrong. One member of the management did care.
The restaurant’s single female manager had been on vacation leave for the past few weeks. The day she came back, the Gentlemen Caller and I had another one of our lovely interactions.
“Stop touching me.”
“Because I asked you not to, that’s why.”
“That’s not a good enough reason!”
Suddenly, the Managing Savior stepped in: “Yeah, but Gentlemen Groper, you need to stop touching C.D. If she says she doesn’t want you to touch her, then you don’t touch her.”
And then he stopped.
I am not even joking. He didn’t touch me again for another two weeks (and then he started again, but that’s another story).
Talk about the power of management! I’d been telling the Gentlemen Groper to stop for weeks; the manager says one sentence, and BOOM.
Here’s the thing. My story isn’t interesting because it’s rare. My story is interesting because of how fucking banal it is.
After the Gentlemen Groper stopped touching me, I found out that he’d done the same thing to every single woman on staff who was in my age range.
Every. Single. One.
He wasn’t just a Gentlemen Groper. He was a Serial Gentlemen Groper.
[Sidenote: you know how all the other women got him to stop? By telling the Gentlemen Groper that they had boyfriends. Because we live in a fucking patriarchy, where an invisible boyfriend has more authority over a woman’s body than she does.]
Like I said, my harassment story is ridiculously banal. Even within my workplace, I was the rule, not the exception.
And out of my workplace?
31% of women report that they’ve been sexually harassed at work
7% of men report that they’ve been sexually harassed at work
62% of the targets took no action.
Sexual harassment isn’t some kind of rare crime that happens to people you don’t know. It happens everywhere. It happens to everyone. A third of the working women you know have been sexually harassed.
And close to one-tenth of all the working men you know have also been sexually harassed.
Yeeaaaahhh…. I’m not sure “awkward” is the word I’d use.
Rage-inducing might be more like it.
WHY IS THIS EVEN A FUCKING PROBLEM?
I mean, I realize I’m reinventing the feminism wheel over here, but seriously. This is a problem that should never even be a problem, because people should know that “no” means “no.” They should know that people’s bodies are their own, and you don’t touch people without their consent. And managers should ENFORCE THOSE RULES, and pay attention when their employees are all “NO TOUCHING.”
Didn’t we learn this in kindergarten?
Here’s the end of the story:
My summer ended. I left to go back to school. And the Gentlemen Groper? He’s still there.
Other women will come and work at that store, and I don’t doubt he’ll do the same things to them that he did to me.
I know there are people reading this who will think I didn’t do enough. That I should have reported him, formally. That I must have been inviting the attention, somehow. I fear I’ll get a bunch of comments in the vein of “well, if you’d told him to stop in this very particular way, he would have stopped!”
Heck, there’s a part of me that believes that I could have done something differently. That I was inviting the attention, or that I’m responsible for the Gentlemen Groper’s future actions.
But let’s dissect that for a minute, my fair readers.
I was harassed. I was poked and prodded and groped. I lived in a near-constant state of panic attacks. And because all these shitty things happened to me, I’ve also been endowed with some magic responsibility to control The Gentlemen Groper’s actions for all of eternity?
With Great Victimhood comes Great Responsibility?
What is this Reverse Spiderman crap?
I mean, seriously. Not only do I get sexually harassed (hurrah), but on top of everything else, my being sexually harassed gives me EXTRA responsibilities? The fact that I was harassed means I need to be subjected to even more more scrutiny and humiliation? I have to put my job and my safety even more in danger in order to report the harassment to supervisors who, let’s face it, didn’t look particularly interested in stopping it?
I told the Gentlemen Groper to stop in no uncertain terms. I did it repeatedly. I did it fifteen times a shift, occasionally.
And he did nothing.
My managers saw the Gentlemen Groper harassing me; they saw me tell him to stop; they saw him keep doing it.
And they did nothing.
So you know what? If you’ve read this post and your first reaction is “well, you could have done THIS differently” or “why didn’t YOU file a harassment report”?
Then I could give a fuck about what you think.
The person responsible for my sexual harassment?
The Gentlemen Groper.
The people who should have helped, but didn’t? [and who, in some cases, actively encouraged the Gentlemen Groper]
Their behavior should be the issue, not mine. I know the extent of my responsibility in the incident of the Gentlemen Groper.
I know what I can do. I know what I “should” do.
Quick tangent: You know what the most annoying thing about this whole situation is?
I still feel guilty, two years out. There are parts of me that still feel like I should have been able to “handle it.” I should have been able to have that legendary sense of humor. I should not have “overreacted.” I shouldn’t have bothered everyone with this. It wasn’t that bad.
Hell, why am I even writing this blog post? It’s not that big a deal! I should stop bothering all of you with my silly stories. There are people out there experiencing real sexual harassment, as opposed to… whatever happened to me.
Those feelings? Those are the most annoying part.
And that’s why I didn’t report the harassment.
That’s also why, I suspect, most people don’t report sexual harassment. Because we as a culture teach people – and especially women – that they just need to put up with this crap. We as a culture refuse to stand behind harassment victims. We teach people that they should be “flattered” by the attention. That they shouldn’t make a big deal. We remind people that their harassers have lives too: “Do you want to ruin the Gentlemen Groper’s life, C.D.? Do you want to ruin your manager’s lives by bothering them?”
Sexual harassment happens because our culture encourages harassers and silences victims.
I’ve gotten (somewhat) over blaming myself for the harassment. I’ve moved to a place where I can be proud of myself for recognizing what was happening, and for standing up for myself.
I’ve gotten over telling myself I could have done something different.
I’ve gotten over the whole idea that victims have a special responsibility to confront their harassers and magically end sexual harassment through the power of gumption and bootstraps.
But I wanted to do something.
My story is banal. There are millions others like it. But sexual harassment thrives in a culture of silence. We just don’t talk about it. *I* didn’t talk about it.
But I wanted to do something.
So I wrote about it.
Because the first thing we can do – the first thing I can do – is talk about the harassment. Stop pretending it doesn’t happen. Tell people what it looks like. Make it clear that it’s not okay.
Sexual harassment thrives in silence. And no matter how guilty I feel for speaking up, I will not be silent anymore.
Resources: If you or someone you know is being sexually harassed, remember: the harasser’s behavior is not your fault or your responsibility.
Some people want help and advice. Hell, I could have used help and advice while I was being harassed. If you’re one of those people (and you don’t have to be) here’s a good listing of sexual harassment hotlines and resources.
Another, less formal resource is Captain Awkward’s post on the Creepy Dude. It’s brilliant, funny and the advice therein (and in the comments section) is remarkably not-victim-blamey and useful.
Comments policy: any victim-blaming bullshit will either be deleted or mocked. If you write an entire screed about what I “should” have done, you are warned, I will mock you, and I will not be nice about it.
General advice for sexual harassment victims is okay, within limits. Tread carefully. Do not use the word “should.” Remember that people experiencing harassment have enough to deal with without being made to feel inadequate for not behaving “correctly.” Also, if your comment is anything like “well, you can magically control your reactions to being constantly groped,” I will mock you.
And if your comment is ANYWHERE near “but will all flirting be banned then?” or “it’s so hard for men; they constantly have to watch themselves to make sure they’re not making people uncomfortable” (wait, this is a bad thing?) I will mock you SO HARD.
Finally any comments diagnosing the Gentlemen Groper with some kind of mental illness or disability will similarly be deleted or mocked. Excusing the Groper’s behavior because of a disability/illness is insulting to other people with mental illnesses (like me) or mental disabilities, because it assumes that people with mental illnesses/disabilities are a) all assholes and b) are incapable of understanding the word “no.” The topic has been well covered elsewhere, but I’ll say it again: people with mental and social disabilities are still perfectly capable of understanding the words “stop” and “no.”
I’m BACK everyone!
It’s been well over a month, and I’m sorry I disappeared for so long. I have a long, perfectly reasonable explanation for why I disappeared, which can be summarized as:
1. Depression sucks
2. Pretending you don’t have depression is a STUPID-ASS IDEA. [Denial: it’s not just a river in Egypt]
3. Going off your migraine pills because the side effects are terrible? Without talking to the Doctor first? WILL NOT END WELL.
This message has been brought to you by No Shit Sherlock University.
But I should be back much more regularly now. Because if there’s something the world needs, it’s more feminist pop-culture commentary.
There will be rants! There will be entire posts about BOOBS (I’m not even kidding: wait for Thursday). There will be book reviews! There will be fun stories! There will be more misandronists than the trolls know how to deal with!
AND THERE WILL BE A RANT ABOUT A FUCKNECK.
The Olympics are over. The Olympics are waaaay over.
But because I was off not-blogging, I still have a rant stored up. A BIG rant.
And it’s a bad idea to let rants fester, because eventually festering turn into gangrene. Then you’ve got to chop the whole brain off.
… I need my brain.
So let’s just get this over with, shall we?
Ladies, Gentlemen, People of All Genders: CHRIS CHASE IS AN ASSHAT.
Sorry for the language.
[Actually, I’m not sorry. The feminist blogosphere has been GREAT for my vocabulary. Asshat, fuckneck, douchenozzle… all the best insults]
Okay, backing up for a second. Who is Chris Chase, and how did he get on my bad side?
Chris Chase is a columnist for Yahoo! Sports. During the Olympics, he wrote a… thing – I hesitate to call it a column – called United States Leads China in “Real” Medal Count.
The impetus for the “column”? China was in the lead of the medal count – a catastrophe of international proportions. And of course, Chris Chase took it on himself to rectify this devastating situation.
I mean, yes, the Olympics are supposed to be about bringing people together and celebrating sports, but really, they’re about the USA beating everyone.
Come on, people, didn’t you get the memo?
How did Chris Chase rectify the horrifying problem of China’s medal lead? Simple! He posited that only certain sports really counted in the Olympics – the ones where victories are “objective and undeniable.” As opposed to “judged activities masquerading as sports.”
See, gymnastics and diving and judo and other “judged sports” aren’t “sports.” They’re just pretending! They’re “nonsense”! I kid you not, in a followup post, Chase explained that gymnastics is a “hobby”
Yeah, I feel no shame in calling him an asshat.
Discounting people’s athletic achievements so you can make the USA win the medal count? REALLY? That’s what we’re doing now? We’re just going to cut out all the sports where Americans don’t do well, and call them “hobbies”? Then we’re going to call the people who enjoy them “rubes”?
(again, actual quote. Rubes.)
Asshat who wrote a terrible column.
A terrible patronizing jingoistic column.
A terrible patronizing jingoistic MISOGYNISTIC column, at that.
An aside: you know, sometimes, I sympathize with non-feminists. I mean, not enough to agree with them, but I can sympathize. You’re reading a blog post about Chase, a guy, who has issues with gymnastics. Suddenly the writer yells “misogyny!” And you’re all “Uh, Chase doesn’t like gymnastics. It’s stupid, but what the hell does this have to do with misogyny? God! Feminists! So hysterical! Getting upset over the smallest things. Next thing you’ll know, they’ll be saying my cat is a misogynist.”
[by the way, your cat is definitely not a misogynist. We’re cool]
LET’S unpack my misogyny claim. Because sadly, misogyny isn’t just people running around and screaming “WE HATE WOMEN.” (although that does happen).
In fact, a big part of misogyny is categorizing things associated with women as “lesser.”
And what do all the “judged sports” Chase discounts – with the exception of judo – have in common? They’re all “artistic” sports. “Artistic sports,” like dance, gymnastics, diving, rhythmic gymnastics, trampoline etc. tend – rightly or wrongly – to be seen as “women’s” sports. “Artsy” things are coded female in our society.
Thus, dismissing artistic sports as “not” sports? Coded misogyny.
I should note, too, that in the USA, women tend to do better in these particular sports than men. American women’s gymnastics is a much bigger presence in the Olympics than American men gymnastics (the men won one individual medal, the women won team gold and four individual medals). American female divers also tend to get higher on the podium than American male divers.
So when Chris Chase decides that all these artistic sports – gymnastics, diving, trampoline – aren’t real sports, that they aren’t worthy of being included in the medal count – he’s also playing into the idea that sports associated with women are less important.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every single athlete Chris Chase names in the “fake” sports category is a woman. Every. Single. One. He doesn’t go after male gymnast Danell Levya (the bronze medalist for the all-around) or male synchonized divers Troy Dumais and Kristian Ipsen (who won bronze in synchronized diving). But he does make sure to list female gymnnasts Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber and Victoria Komova as members of a “fake” sport. He takes particular glee in explaining how Gabby Douglas’ victory over Victoria Komova – and her earlier qualification over Jordyn Wieber – are invalid: “why did [Douglas] win a gold over Victoria Komova? Because some judges said she was 0.259 better? It wouldn’t be so insulting if we weren’t the rubes who accept it like it’s real. Gymnastics wins aren’t victories.”
Sorry, couldn’t help myself. *cough*
Chase proceeds to cite “real” victors – athletes who participate in “real” “objective” sports (I will not even begin to parse the ridiculousness of these labels): Michael Phelps. Usain Bolt. Both men. He does give a nod to Missy Franklin in at the end, but the contrast between the female-heavy “activities masquerading as sports” and male -heavy REAL sports is pretty obvious.
The reason I’m still so pissed comes down to gymnastics, honestly. Americans didn’t do that well in diving or in tumbling, so Chris Chase didn’t have to throw many of them under the bus for his little “real sports” equation. But in gymnastics? In gymnastics, he took five of the most widely-recognized, inspirational athletes of the Olympics and he said they were nothing.
To these women, who won team gold for the USA for the first time in 16 years, he said: you are not athletes. You, who have trained for forty hours a week for the past five years? You are not athletes. You, who can flip multiple times in the air? You’re just “masquerading.”
To Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, who won individual medals in beam, floor and all-around, he said: you are “masquerading” as athletes. Gabby Douglas, the first African-American winner of the all-around gold medal?
She’s not an athlete.
And yeah, I think taking the achievements of five women and pretending they don’t count – making a POINT of explaining why they don’t count (since the women’s gymnastics team are the only “fake” athletes Chase names and discusses for any length of time) for no other reason than for the USA to pull ahead in the medal count – damn straight, I think that’s misogyny.
Chase concedes that “Gabby Douglas winning the women’s all-around was one of the most memorable moments of the first week” but damn, why are we even WATCHING this girl? Why aren’t we paying attention to REAL sports like swimming and track? If we only had MANLY sports, we would be able to beat China on the real, testosterone-filled field of battle, instead of having to fight them in all these silly, feminine, artsy “hobbies.”
The good news? I don’t really need to take down Chase’s post. At this point, I’m just ranting into thin air.
Because the USA did win the medal count. And they won it because of their female athletes, not in spite of them.
American women won 29 gold medals to the men’s 17, and 58 overall medals to the men’s 45. Thus, it was thanks in large part to the women that the USA won the medal count.
The extent to which I care who wins the medal count is pretty minimal. But – and forgive me for being annoying patriotic right now – the USA winning the medal count thanks to the women is a fitting ending to the story, don’t you think?
Gymnastics, diving and trampoline are all “real” sports.
Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Ali Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Kayla Ross? All “real” athletes.
Chris Chase? “Real” Asshat.
And don’t mess with female athletes. They’re the reason America did so well at the Olympics.
(Hurrah for Title IX)
Rant over. Nits picked. Festering done. Gangrene avoided. Soap-box used.
Up Next! The BOOBS post!
[Trigger Warning for bullying, violence, homophobia, harassment, suicide]
I usually apologize for long blog posts. I have a short attention span; I’m sure my readers do too. But I’m not apologizing this time.
This post is different.
As most of my regular readers know, quite a few of my blog posts are inspired by my younger brother, R. Mostly because R. is awesome, and has great ideas.
This post is different.
Two years ago, during our winter break, R. and I went on a long walk through the streets of Madison. It was night, it was cold, I had heavy bags, but we were enjoying ourselves. We were talking about important things – books, our parents, movies, school etc.
At some point, I asked R. if he liked having an iPod.
Yes, he said. I listen to it on the bus back from school. After the day is over, I often feel frustrated and upset. So I turn on my iPod and listen to Adele or Coldplay, and it helps get rid of the stress.
Now usually, my brother likes school. I mean, obviously, there are good days and bad days and good teachers and bad teachers, but for the most part, he really enjoys it. He loves learning; he has lots of friends… school is good.
So hearing that R. was often frustrated or upset after a day at school was a huge red flag for me – and I asked him why.
That’s when he told me about bullying.
Discussions of teen bullying have been everywhere recently, from Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better movement, to worries about cyberbullying and the surge of teen suicide attempts. The most recent government survey indicates that 28% of kids in grades 6-12 have experienced bullying. I wouldn’t be shocked if it were more.
I knew bullying existed. It was still a punch in the gut when R. told me it was happening in his school.
I had a very mature reaction to the situation. My brother was going to drop out of school and never, ever go there again. And if that wasn’t feasible, I was going to drop out of college and follow him around with a baseball bat.
…yeah, that was a pretty terrible plan.
Eventually, I realized there wasn’t anything I could do except listen and offer advice. My brother, after all, isn’t getting physically bullied. He isn’t even getting harassed that much – at least in comparison to other students. He just goes to a school where bullying is constant and ubiquitous. He sees it happen every day. Sometimes it happens to him. Often it happens to his friends.
Over the past two years, I’ve listened with increasing horror to my brother’s stories. The kid whose facebook and email was spammed with “accusations” that he was gay. The guy who pushes other kids into lockers. The insults students yell at each other. The teasing. The shunning. The ubiquitous, constant, malicious gossip.
“You’re gay.” “You’re stupid.” “You’re fat.”
It never ends.
No wonder R. needs his music to calm down every day. It’s impossible not to be affected by it.
I can tell. My brother doesn’t enjoy school as much as he used to. He’s more stressed, and it’s not just because of homework or teachers. He often comes home angry and frustrated, needing to talk about the latest catastrophe.
I remember telling R. that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, bullied a closeted gay student when he was in prep school. I’ve rarely seen my brother that outraged.
Worse was when R. saw the Rolling Stones article about the Anoka-Hennepin school district, where students who appear to be LGBTQ are constantly harassed, teachers are forbidden to offer them help and nine students committed suicide within two years. Reading the article, he went dead silent. After a few minutes, he turned to me and asked, in a tone I’ll never forget:
“How can people let this happen?”
[Although I highly recommend the article, it is extraordinarily difficult to read. Warning for homophobia, bullying, suicide, violence]
Bullying poisons children’s lives. It destroys their safety. Sometimes, it even kills them.
Not to mention that it’s ruining their education. No matter how good a teacher or a school is, kids aren’t going to learn well if they’re constantly scared.
I think the anti-bullying campaigns are good, I do. I’m glad bullying is finally getting discussed in the media. I’m glad people are starting to see it as a valid issue. I’m glad they’re trying to find solutions.
But sometimes, I look at the pundits talking and the teachers worrying and the celebrities campaigning, and I worry that the kids voices are getting lost. Adults have found a problem, and adults will impose solutions.
One of the most important things we can do is to listen to students. To provide a space for them to tell us their stories, their experiences, their ideas. After all, it’s their fight. We’re not going to end bullying without them.
So before my brother left for France, I interviewed him about bullying at his school. I used my computer to record our discussion. With his permission – and his help – I’ve now transcribed the recording, with a few minor edits for length and for clarity.
We need to hear more of these stories.
A few important notes: My brother is entering the eighth grade and goes to school in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s male, cisgendered, white, and currently identifies as straight (I say “currently” because he’s twelve – any conclusion about his sexual orientation is premature at best). I’m a college student now, but I went to the same middle school he now attends, and he’ll be going to my former high school.
Also important: no real names were used in the interview – I swapped out any names my brother mentioned with pseudonymns.
CD: Testing one – two – three. Okay, so… We’re recording as of now.
R: Wait, how does that thing work?
CD: It’s just recording our voices.
R: That’s so creepy!
CD: *laughs* You want to listen to this section back?
R: Sure. *rewind and listen*
CD: Aha! We’re recording again. First, I want to thank you, R. for agreeing to get interviewed by me.
R:… you’re welcome? *laughs*
CD: Yeah, you don’t have to act like we’re in a formal interview… everyone knows we’re bizarre. Anyways. The idea for this interview came when I asked you what kind of blog post I should write next, and you said I should write about bullying in middle school. And I said – well, I don’t know that much about bullying in middle school. Maybe I should ask you.
R: Yeah. That sounded like a good idea.
CD: It was interesting for me over the past two years or so because middle school… was not the best time of my life. But I didn’t get bullied in American middle-school, and I don’t remember other people getting bullied either. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I don’t remember it at all. I did get bullied in French middle-school and that was really unpleasant; it just didn’t happen when I went to our American middle-school. But you’ve been saying that now there’s a lot of bullying at your school.
R: But wait. Didn’t you get bullied when people made fun of you for being French?
CD: Yeah. But that was mostly in high school, actually. And wasn’t… constant. It just happened sometimes.
CD: Exactly. Which I gather is a big problem at your school too –
R: Yeah, there is a lot of bullying at my school. And the teachers aren’t solving it, even though they’re trying to. They don’t have the right approach.
CD: What’s their approach right now?
R: Doing a two-million dollar anti-bullying program called Hawk talk –
CD: Wait – Hawk as in the bird?
R: *rolls eyes* It’s our school mascot.
CD: *laughs* Oh god. That’s so – Okay, okay. Hawk. So what’s the Hawk Talk?
R: Pretty much – every morning, you get thirty minutes extra with your homeroom teacher. And your homeroom teacher opens up this anti-bullying booklet and then talks about stuff we’ve covered millions of times over the years. Again. And Again. And Again. It’s really cheesy. No one likes it. And then the teacher make you fill out worksheets about what you would do in a bad situation. But nobody actually pays attention.
R: They also have bullying forms, so if you’re bullied you can fill it out. They say it’s confidential, but it’s really not. I’m sure tons of people are afraid that if they’re bullied and they fill out the application, the bully will –
CD: Find out.
R: Find out and… kill them.
CD: Aaaaah! Seriously?
R: Well, not kill them. But you know what I mean.
CD: Yeah. Retaliation. So… what do they talk about, the teachers? Is it just telling you that bullying is bad? Or –
R: Exactly. They just talk about how bullying is bad. But everyone already knows that – and they still do it.
R: They’re covering the same material. Nobody really cares anymore. And bullying hasn’t gone down by a significant margin since they started. It’s not working. So they need to find some other way of stopping bullying.
CD: I though – one of the things that’s really striking for me – when I listen to you talk about bullying, it seems like it’s everywhere. And it seems like it’s everyone, almost.
R: I think a lot of people bully and they almost – don’t realize it. I’ve seen kids saying that the new law in North Carolina that’s prejudiced against gay rights is bad – and then I hear the same kids turn around and taunt other students for being gay.*
[*He’s referring to the newly passed North Carolina law that bans gay marriage]
CD: Seriously? Wow.
R: Right? It’s… very weird. People don’t realize they’re being bullies; they don’t realize that they’re being that hurtful. And, you know, if you make enemies of popular kids, they’ll gossip about you. If you made enemies of some people, they spread information throughout the school, and you turn into someone to be made fun of. It’s happened to several kids and – it’s really horrible.
R: It’s – it’s a little like – you know, you make any little mistake. If you accidentally push over a popular girl, she might spread gossip about you to everyone else, and within five minutes, people will be laughing and pointing and you won’t even know why. So that’s a really big problem.
CD: Yeah… *long pause* Now we’re smiling at each other like dolts, because we do that all the time.
R: I’m smiling because you’re weird.
CD: Too true. Moving on. From our conversations – it also feels like almost everyone gets bullied.
R: Um –
CD: Or am I misreading?
R: No, I’d say that’s true. Almost everyone gets bullied, but some people get bullied a lot more than others. Especially kids who aren’t popular.
You know, right now it’s like a hierarchy. When students try to move up in the world, they get made fun of a lot. I see this at school all the time, and I saw it at my last camp. There was a kid who joined a group of people – because at camp, people divide up into groups, which is very similar to what happens at school. He was trying to be friends with them, and they would act totally friendly, but when he left, I would overhear them saying “oh, he’s so weird” and stuff like that. So people started looking at him funny, and more people started making fun of him. I was one of his other friends, and luckily, he started moving away from that group.
CD: That’s good.
R: Right. But that doesn’t always happen. Bullying victims – often they don’t get support, even from friends. And at school, people can pretend to be nice, but they can be horrible behind your back – make fun of you, and bully you.
CD: I heard about one kid at your school – people started spreading a rumor that he was gay, and it was all over – on Facebook, email etc. And everyone was talking about it behind his back.
R: That’s happened two or three times.
CD: It’s happened more than once?
R: Yeah. And I feel horrible for those people, because – first of all, being gay shouldn’t be a bad thing. Second of all – I mean, who is cruel enough to do that? It’s horrible. The poor guy, he’s probably being made fun of all the time. I mean, I’m sure he was really damaged, especially if it was all over facebook. I don’t have a facebook, but I know if you put stuff on facebook, two hundred people know within two hours.
CD: The joys of the internet.
CD: And I know – you’ve been called gay once or twice.
R: I was doing a presentation for Health and Wellness, and I was being falsely cheerful, because I hate Health and Wellness.
CD: *laughs* Ouch.
[I hated Health and Wellness too, for the record]
R: I ended the presentation, and someone shouted out “gay.” But it was really nice – you know, my feelings were hurt, absolutely. But the rest of the class just told that person they were being mean, and to stop it. Which was really nice, and that actually helped me. There are some things where people realize that you’re being bullied and they –
CD: And they tell people to stop.
R: The school slogan is “Name it, Claim it, Stop it.” Name the bullying, tell the bully what it is, and say stop it. Which… sometimes works, but most of the time, the bully totally ignores it. It’s hard – you see some people try to stand up for others, but it’s really hard to stand up against a bully who is popular, or who has a lot of friends who are bullies.
CD: Yeah, because you don’t want to be the one who becomes bullied.
R: Exactly. That’s risky.
CD: It seems like the word “gay” has sort of become – the problem isn’t that people are gay. It’s just a fact of life. Some people are gay, some people are straight, some people are bisexual, some people have other orientations. The problem is that the word has become –
R: An Insult. It’s like saying “you’re stupid.” Or “You dress weird.” It’s pretty much: “You dress weird, talk weird, are really strange” – all in one word. That’s what it’s become, and that’s just not good.
R: Bullying – comes from a lot of things. One of them is, if you’re bullied, the bully might actually be afraid of you. Bullying is a lot like, you know -racism and sexism. It’s a lot because people are afraid of people who are different. So they discriminate. Or they bully.
CD: I know you have a friend who is openly gay. Does he get bullied more than other students, or are people okay with it?
R: Well, actually, he’s not openly gay.
CD: Ah. Hold that thought.
R: Yeah. He has told a couple people – his close friends – and we are totally fine with it. But if he was openly gay… I think he made a very good decision in not coming out. Being openly gay is a good thing. And people should absolutely feel safe enough to do that. But if you’re in middle school, and especially in my school, if you were openly gay – life would turn into a living hell for you. For sure.
R: Absolutely. People you thought were your friends would probably just – be repulsed.
CD: You know what I find really disturbing about this is… we live in Madison. And Madison is like, socialist hippieville. We’re one of the most liberal places in the country. So if even here, it isn’t safe to be gay, or lesbian or bisexual in middle school, that’s really sad.
R: It is really sad. And even when people believe gay people shouldn’t be discriminated against – as I said before, the guy who was against the North Carolina law also makes fun of kids by calling them gay. It’s like – what the hell is wrong with you?
CD: Do you not realize you’re contributing to the problem?
R: Exactly. And you know, I think the adults really don’t discriminate against gay kids – the adults in our school. But with the kids, it’s become this thing. You know, you’re gay – that means you’re different. I mean, racism is still present in the school, but it’s not that present. It’s a very minor problem. Well – what I mean is, in terms of insults – people aren’t made fun of for their race. Now “gay” is the new big insult.
CD: It feels like – if someone were to make fun of someone else for being Black or Hispanic or Asian – that would not be cool. But it’s still sort of cool to make fun of people for seeming gay.
R: Calling someone gay is – now people think of it as, it’s not that big of a deal to say. You won’t get in trouble. If you’re racist towards someone, the teachers will immediately – kill you.
R: It’s over. But insulting someone for their sexuality… you won’t get in trouble. And in some schools, I know teachers aren’t even allowed to express their opinions on that, or help kids who are being harassed for being gay (he’s referring to the Rolling Stones article). They can’t tell someone to stop calling another kid gay.
CD:So – people get made fun of for being or acting gay – whatever that means. What other kinds of things do people get made fun of for?
R: Being gay – or acting “gay” – is the top thing. But, after that, it’s a lot of small thing. Appearance is big. If you dress different, or you dress “weird,” you’ll get teased. If you’re fat, you’ll get teased. Even if you’re not fat, but you just look – different – you’ll get teased. If you do something wrong, you might be teased about it too. Bullying is a major problem in our school, but most of it has to do with gossip.
CD: That’s interesting.
R: People think it’s just a girl problem, but it’s really not. I think the story about girls gossiping more than boys might be sort of true – I don’t know, I’ve never been a girl – but boys still gossip a lot. I think the blame is just about equal. Girls do gossip a lot; boys gossip a lot –
CD: The girls gossiping more than boys might be a bit of a stereotype.
R: I think so. I mean, I know boys gossip a lot. It’s horrible, because the gossiping thing – one thing will spread around the school in five seconds. It goes very fast, because you have tons of people.
CD: And gossip is really hard to fight because – it’s a form of bullying, and it contributes to bullying, but it’s also a way people bond, and it’s often an important part of people’s friendships. You want to be able to tell your friends secrets.
R: Right. It’s a big thing, to be able to trust someone with your secrets. But at my school, you have to make absolute certain, if you’re going to tell someone something, you have to be 120% sure that they’re not going to tell anyone. If you 100% trust them – that’s not good enough.
CD: *laughs* Wow
R: One of my friends told me who he had a crush on, and I didn’t tell anyone. He told another close friend, and that person didn’t tell anyone. He told another person, but he made a mistake, and that person told everyone.
CD: Oh no!
R: In a matter of days, he thought that his crush now knows that he likes her, which… is horrible. Then that makes the whole situation really awkward. And of course, people were making fun of my friend for liking this girl, and they were making fun of the girl too. So yeah. Gossip is huge. And things get twisted as people tell them to each other.
CD: Right. It’s not “Jess likes Samira” anymore, it’s “Jess went up to Samira and asked her to get married.”
CD: I know there were times when you didn’t want to go to school – I mean, okay – there are lots of reasons you don’t want to go to school. But there were times when it felt like the atmosphere was so negative, you just didn’t want to be there.
R: When people are being extremely mean to each other, and bullying is super common, and my friends are being bullied – yeah, I don’t want to be there. One thing that happened recently, for example: a guy who I knew was a bully became friends with my best friend Joseph. And I was… I didn’t judge Joseph, but I was sort of worried. And one day, Joseph was really sad because this friend started to harass him. He started being mean to him, and tease him. Joseph asked him to stop, but the guy didn’t. So Joseph said, if you don’t stop making fun of me, I can’t be friends with you. And the guy was just like – it doesn’t matter, I have lots of other friends. That was really bad. It was horrible, actually. Even after Joseph stopped hanging out with him, the guy just kept harassing him. And Joseph was upset for a really long time. So it’s really hard to trust people.
CD: I can imagine. Question: do people get physically bullied? Like – pushed, punched, poked, whatever.
R: Physical bullying is not that common at all. It’s very rare. It’s the kind of bullying – it’s old school bullying. Back in the day, if you beat someone up, the teachers didn’t care. But now – if you beat someone up, you’re suspended, you’re expelled – you get in deep trouble. On the other hand, if you just call someone names, nothing will happen to you. And that brings me to the other kind of bullying that’s a huge problem at our middle school, and that’s – cyberbullying. It’s extremely common at our school. It’s probably even bigger than in high school. Maybe. I don’t know, because I’ve never been to high school. But I know you have – so was there a lot of cyberbullying when you were in high school?
CD: There wasn’t with me. But when I was in high school, I wasn’t really involved in the online scene. And things like facebook were new back then, so I think people hadn’t figured out how to take full advantage of it for its bullying potential. How does cyberbullying work at your school?
R: Well, obviously the trolls. People who just go on your facebook or your email, and write “I hate you, I hate you.”
CD: You guys already have to deal with trolling?
R: Yeah. And a lot of it is on email. People send tons mean emails to other students. And I’ve heard that on facebook, there’s a lot of bullying.
CD: Like – how? People writing mean things on other people’s walls –
R: That. That, and also, negative information can be spread very fast that way.
CD: Yeah. Like “Hey R. I hear you’re in love with your teacher Mrs. Mendelsohn.”
R: Aaaah. CD… that’s weird. Ewwwwwwwwwww. Anyways. What was I going to say?
CD: How would I know? Oh, right, my secret power as a mind reader.
R: *rolls eyes* My point was that my dad thought I had facebook at one point, and he was worried because he knew a lot of cyberbullying at my school. My parents have received emails about cyberbullying incidents. And on facebook, you’re extremely vulnerable to cyberbullying. And now that everyone has cell phones – it’s texting. People texting all the time, especially mean gossip. So it spreads extremely quickly.
And now, it even spreads to people who aren’t at your school – who are at other schools.
CD; Right. So you could just show up to another middle school, and say “Hi, I’m R.” and everyone would be like “Oh, hi R. We know everything about you! Like how you’re married to Mrs. Livingstone! And you’re in love with… Miguel and you’re gay and…”
R: Exactly. And I think it’s more harmful because when you’re on the internet or your cell phone, people say meaner things. You might not call someone stupid to their face, but you might send them an email or a text that says “you’re stupid” or “you’re ugly’ or “you’re gay.”
CD: Right. So, let’s talk about solutions. Or the current lack thereof. Right now, your school has a big anti-bullying campaign and it’s been going on for what – two years? Three years?
R: Something like that. A while.
CD: And it doesn’t seem to be doing very much.
CD: It just seems to – almost – it makes everyone bored.
R: It might even make it worst, if possible.
CD: It almost makes it cool to be a bully, because the adults are uncool.
CD: Do you think the adults understand the bullying problem? Okay – let me rephrase –
R: One thing I don’t think the adults understand is the hierarchy in the school. Even if the bullying stops, you will be regarded as a lower being and gossip will be spread about you. The problem is that the hierarchy makes people unsafe.
CD: Right. I think maybe – adults understand physical bullying. And they understand if someone were constantly called stupid or gay. But stuff like gossip, I don’t think they necessarily see why –
R: Even when someone is called stupid or gay, I think it’s really hard for adults to stop the bullying. They can’t give the bully a valid threat or a good reason to stop.
CD: Okay. That’s a problem. Actually, now that I think of it: you know the story you told about the kid calling you gay in front of the class? I find it really striking that it was the students who shut him down, not the teacher. Did the teacher say anything?
R: No, she didn’t say anything. She didn’t try to stop him.
CD: Well – urgh. Because if your peers hadn’t stood up for you, it would have made it seem like name-calling was okay.
R: I agree. The thing is, I don’t think the adults know how to help people who are bullied. And I think the best thing adults can do is strengthen the victim. To get the victim to a place where they can feel safe standing up for themselves. It’s not that they need to feel strong enough to stand up for themselves, they just have to feel safe. But right now, our school isn’t safe. Some people are very vulnerable. So we also need to work on ways to get the bully to stop, and that’s… difficult. Bullying is a problem where there might not be a real solution.
CD: I think – I think bullying is a problem that requires a lot of work and it requires a lot of different small solutions.
R: Exactly. I think it’s not something where there won’t be one magic pill that solves everything. Unfortunately. One bullying program is not going to do much.
CD: Are there times where you’ve seen, with your friends or your peers, where you’ve seen bullying get stopped? Like the incident where you were called gay, and your classmates shut it down.
R: Yes. That was one instance where it got stopped.
CD: Can you think of other ones?
R: Unfortunately… no.
CD: That’s bad.
R: It’s possible, but I’ve not been there. I think a lot of people are afraid to stand up. The exception is: when something is really mean, people do stand up. The problem is, when it gets really mean, it’s usually after the bullying has been going for a while. So the victim will be grateful for the help, but they’ll still be hurt. A lot. The damage will already have been done. What you need to do is stop the small stuff. We have to stop it when it starts.
CD: I think one of the things it has to be is – it has to be a really individual commitment. Which is hard. Especially with things like gossip. It has to be an individual decision – something like: “I have decided that I’m not going to gossip.” And then, telling other people, if they try to gossip with you: “Guys, I love you, but I don’t want to gossip with you, because I know that that often hurts people’s feelings, and I don’t want to be part of that”
CD: Yeah, sorry. I know I sound really cheesy right now. There are better ways of saying it. “Let’s not gossip, let’s go play Frisbee instead.”
R: Right. Exactly. *laughs* Playing Frisbee solves all the problem.
CD: It’s how I solved all my problems. It’s not that we need to sit around and say “we love everyone and want to be friends with everyone.” It’s just getting to a place where people aren’t feeling attacked all the time.
R: And the individual commitment – it’s hard to be committed when you’re a bully.
CD: Well, you’re certainly committed to something… you’re just not committed to stopping bullying.
R: No duh. Being individually committed to stopping bullying would really help – if people would just try to stand up for people who are being bullied. And the more people that do that, the less weird it’ll seem when someone stands up.
CD: I think that’s part of it. Right now, there’s almost a peer pressure to bully. Or at least, if you’re not going to bully, not to stop people from bullying. And instead, there needs to be a peer pressure to stop people from bullying.
R: Exactly. More people just need to start doing it. Start trying to stop it.
CD: And I think that’s really tough – don’t get me wrong.
[At this point, we’re interrupted by two phone calls. Then our stepsister asks if we want to go to the beach with her. We say yes and resume recording after our beach trip.]
CD: And we’re back, ladies and gentlemen and listeners of all ages and genders. Before I forget – one of the things I said to you while we were at the beach, which I think is interesting more generally is – in social justice, or in anti-oppression politics, we talk a lot about how there are people who believe that words don’t matter. They think the only kind of violence that can hurt people is physical violence. But it seems like that’s really not true with bullying.
R: Yeah…. no. Those people are just wrong in every possible way. So many problems, so little time. I’d say that words hurts people a lot more than violence does, especially these days. Gossip, cyberbullying – those are all words. And they really do hurt people.
CD: And if words didn’t matter, you could just go around and say “Who cares who calls me stupid?” But it does hurt, and it does matter, and it does make a difference.
R: There’s an old saying that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But that’s wrong, ladies and gentlemen. That’s just wrong. There are things that people have said to me that still hurt, a year or two later.
CD: I agree. I’ve heard the saying re-worded as “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can scar me forever.”
R: Yeah. I think that’s a much more accurate phrase.
CD: Before we left, we were talking about solutions…
R: Yes. We were. And we were talking about how individual commitment is really important. and how we should stand up more for victims.
CD: But standing up for others is hard if you yourself feel vulnerable.
R: It’s a vicious cycle, because you get bullied, so you feel vulnerable. So you don’t stand up for other people. So more people get bullied, and they feel more vulnerable, so they don’t stand up for other people. So more and more people are bullied, and there are more and more victims. You have to get out of the cycle somehow. It’s tricky.
CD: One thing is: if you and your friends – For one thing, you can always stand up for friends that are being bullied.
R: Yes. That’s a lot easier than doing it for people you don’t know.
CD: It’s easier to say “Oh, people are saying mean things about my friend Jess, so I’m going to tell them “no, you guys, this is not okay.”
R: Or you can say “I’m not going to talk to you guys if you say mean things about my friend Jess.”
CD: Exactly. And maybe it’s also a good thing if your group of friends makes a decision that you’re all going to stand up for each other. So everyone knows – in an explicit way – that you guys will always help each other out. That way, if you’re being bullied, R., you know that you can go to your friends Joseph and Tom and Miguel and say “Guys, can you help me?” And you’re not embarrassed, and you’re not worried that they’ll say no, because you guys have already talked about it.
R: Yeah. Exactly.
CD: And even starting with a couple of friends that you know you guys have decided amongst yourselves that you will stand up for each other – that helps. Then when you as a group feel safe – and when you feel comfortable, you can say “okay, that guy over there isn’t our friend, but we know him and we like him. People are calling him gay, so we’re going to go over there and say “not cool guys.” In a less cheesy way. Because your sister is the king of cheese.
R: I mean, that’s the only way I’ve seen bullying get stopped. When friends stand up for you, or when other people tell the bully to stop.
CD: That’s true: from all the conversations we’ve had, and from everything you’ve said to me, it seems to me that the only way bullying will stop is through peer-to-peer techniques. I don’t think a top-down, teacher-and-administration effort will work.
R: It’s never really going to stop. I think we need to reduce it dramatically, and do a lot more to help the victim. It’s a little like – hunger will never stop –
CD: – but that’s not a reason not to try and make it better.
R: Exactly. And I agree – I think adults imposing a program is not very effective at all.
CD: Our stepsister* was telling us that kids actually bully other kids using the anti-bullying program. Like, they make fun of the program, and then they make fun of other kids using the program – or kids who participate in the program, or who try to follow the lessons –
[*Our stepsister is in R.’s grade, and goes to the same school]
R: Yeah exactly. Because they’re like “that’s so stupid.” It’s just another weapon.
CD: So I guess the question I have is – I’m not really an adult, but in your life, I’m sort-of an adult. And as a sort-of adult, I can completely understand that if you were a teacher or another adult, you would want to help kids. You would want so stop bullying. So do you think there are ways to do that without making it worse? Without just saying “bullying is bad, don’t do it?”
R: Yeah, I think there are better ways teachers can help. You know, I think one of the big lies adults tell you in middle-school and high-school is that they’re always there for you. And sometimes, they’re really not.
R: One thing is, if they could make the victim feel safer in reporting. It needs to be confidential, or the victim might be afraid that they won’t be able to tell the teacher without being harassed by the bully again. They need to change the way harassment forms work, so that kids are more willing to confide in adults. Because right now, we feel like if we tell a teacher, it won’t be confidential. And that’s really frightening.
CD: It probably keeps students from looking for help.
R: Exactly. Harassment form – people are embarrassed to do it. We need to make them realize that they shouldn’t be and that –
CD: It happens to everyone. Or – you’re not a bad person for reporting it. Or a weak person. Being bullied is not a sign of weakness.
R: Exactly. And also: a lot of people say “Oh, everyone goes through bullying.” And what they mean is “it’s not a big deal” But even though everyone goes through it, that doesn’t make it –
CD: Everyone used to get smallpox, but we still got rid of it.
R: Yeah, if everyone does it, it doesn’t make it good.
CD: Bullying can have really bad long-term effects on your psychological health.
R: And your emotional health.
CD; Yes. And on society at large. Because we don’t want to be a society that’s just bullies and victims.
R: That’s really really really big. I’ve heard my parents say before: “Oh, it’ll die down eventually.” And I think that’s… *in a very quiet voice* bullshit.*
[yes, my twelve year old brother swore. Everyone clutch your pearls]
CD: It kind of is bullshit. In my experience, bullying is everywhere, not just in school.
R: It’s just horrible. I really hate when people say that, because it doesn’t make the problem better. It just makes the person feel like a jerk – like “oh, why am I complaining, it happens to everyone.”
CD: There are some things where “it’ll die down” is vaguely legitimate. I’m trying to get an example here – if you’re a girl and you’re getting period cramps, you’ll get that once a month and it will die down eventually – actually, I’ve changed my mind. Even if you get period cramps once a month, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever complain about it.
R: Also, bullying is really different from period cramps.
CD: …Yeah. Bullying is like not period cramps! You heard it here first, folks.
R: I remember I was in Paris, and I was talking about some people bullying me, and my parents’ friends said “oh, that happens to everyone. They’re just going through a phase. Everyone goes through a phase where they bully people, and she’ll get over it.”
CD: That’s still not okay.
R: That’s still not okay. And I was like – blink. blink. What? How does that make sense?
CD: Yes. And like we’ve been saying, there are really negative results that come from bullying. For example, if people are bullying you by calling you gay – first, it sets up a thing where people who are gay are uncomfortable coming out. Which is completely unfair, because I’m not uncomfortable coming out as straight, and there’s nothing better or worse about being gay than being straight. No one’s going to bully me for being straight. And of course, the other problem is that bullying people by calling them gay makes it seem like being gay is a bad thing. And it’s not; it’s just a fact of life.
R: Yeah, exactly. It’s just a fact of life. Its like – I have curly hair. And that’s a fact of life.
CD: It’s not something to be ashamed of.
R: That’s what bullying does. It makes people feel ashamed of what they do, what they wear etc.
CD: Who they are. What they like. Who they like.
R: So there are a lot of problems with bullying. And there are not a lot of solutions that are very effective.
CD: Well, I think a lot of the solutions that are effective are very long term
R: But we also need some short-term solutions that help the victim and the bully. While the long term effects are working out. Or else the victim’s just going to keep getting hurt.You know – asking their friends if they’ll stand up. Or asking their friends to just be with that kid and listen to them.
CD: I think that’s somewhere where teachers can really help. Providing a safe space so victims feel safe to come to them and say “Hey, I’m having a real problem with bullying.” And sometimes the only thing the teacher will be able to do is listen, because doing something else would break confidentiality, or would make the student unsafe. Not being able to do anything except listen – that’s not great. But at the same time, it’s really important because listening tells the victim that what they’re going through is legitimate. And it means they have a place can talk.
R: We really don’t have that right now. I don’t have a lot of people I can talk to – especially adults. And I’m not really being bullied, so I can’t imagine what it’s like if you’re being bullied all the time – not having anyone to talk to.
CD: The other thing is – the teacher can also be the person who says “I know R. and Joseph and Miguel are really anti-bullying, so if you talk to them – or I can talk to them for you – I know they’ll go with you to the cafeteria where people are making fun of you and they’ll eat with you.”
CD: I think we have to put a lot of trust in students and in kids to get rid of the bullying problem. That doesn’t mean we can’t help them, but it can’t be something we impose. It does mean that –
R: It has to be the students and the teachers working together. You know, we could implement a program where students who are being bullied at lunch – other kids can eat with them. And other students can volunteer to help other kids with bullying problems. Mostly, I think teachers need to get closer to students. Because right now, I don’t think people trust them. They say that you can come to them, but it doesn’t really feel like it. I think that’s the problem.
CD: I was thinking – you haven’t read Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, right?
[everyone should go read Protector of the Small now, if not sooner]
CD: It’s Pierce’s third series. It’s about Keladry, who is the first girl to openly try for knighthood – because Alanna dressed up like a boy during her training, right? And Keladry is bullied when she’s a page, because almost everyone is bullied their first year as a page.
CD: But in Keladry’s first and second years, she goes out and she fights the people who are physically bullying other people. And all her friends says “why are you doing this? It happens to everyone, everyone goes through it So why are you doing this? It’s called hazing.” Kel says: “I know that, but it’s not okay. People are getting pushed, people are getting beaten, people are getting seriously hurt and humiliated, and it needs to stop.” And eventually her friends start to join her, so then you have patrols of two or three people roaming through the halls and stopping bullies. And more people join – five or six, and then seven and eight. It takes time, but it becomes an entire movement of her friends who are like “You know what, at first I didn’t see why this was important, but now I do, and now I’m going help out.” It took a lot of effort for Keladry to do it, because she had to do most of the work at the beginning, and she got beat up a couple times. But at the end, the movement was so big that all people had to do was go out and check the halls once a night, and that was it. The bullying problem was over.
R: And I’m sure it really helped the kids who were being bullied.
CD: Yeah, because what would happen is they’d chase the bullies away, and then they’d say to the kid who was being bullied: “Hey, you want to come study with us?”
R: Yeah. Those are probably the most effective solutions. Because I think what makes it worse for me – and for other people who are being bullied – is feeling like you’re alone. Or like other people won’t help you, or like the school doesn’t care.
CD: Yeah. Like your problem isn’t legitimate.
R: Exactly. So that’s part of the solution: breaking the isolation, and making people feel less ashamed. And let them know that there are people who are there for them, and who will help them.
The long term solution is the one where people take a stand, and where they try to help and participate in the work of ending bullying. And the short term solution is teachers supporting kids, and making sure they have resources, and places where they can talk and feel safe.
CD: Is there anything else we need to talk about? Ideas, stories –
R: I can’t think of anything.
CD: Actually – I remember a story on This American Life, where there was a kid with anger management issues because he had a bad home life. And so at school, he was a jerk, and his classmates made fun of him all the time. getting bullied all the time. One day, the other students were really teasing him, so the teacher sent everyone out of the room except the three most popular girls. Not necessarily the most popular kids, actually – kids who are sort of like you: they’re diplomatic, and everyone likes them, but they’re not necessarily the most popular. And the teacher sat them down, and she said “Look, this is why Brendan – I made up that name – is angry all the time. First, please don’t tell anyone. And second, I need you to help me stop people from bullying him.” when the other students came back, the girls started working with their friends, and saying “No, we’re not going to make fun of him.” And that eventually made the bullying stop.
R: That’s a really good example of how a solution like that would work. I’m not surprised it was so effective. It takes a group of people who decide to do it. Who decide to start a movement. We need a movement.
CD: Yes. We need an anti-bullying movement from the ground up.
CD: Okay. That’s a good note to end on. This is us signing off. Everyone: don’t bully.
R: Yes. It’s not good, as the teachers say.
CD: And if you’ve been bullied, there are resources. And we will find them.
There are two things that really resonate with me from this interview. One is:
“You know, I think one of the big lies adults tell you in middle-school is that they’re always there for you. And sometimes, they’re really not.”
And the other is:
“Being bullied is not a sign of weakness”
We need to fix the first problem. We need to be there for those who are being bullied. We need to stop dismissing it as drama, or as something everyone goes through, or as a phase they’ll get over, or as “character building.” We need to stop pretending that kids who complain about bullying are “oversensitive” or need to toughen up. And we need to stop ignoring the problem just because it happens to kids. It’s all well and good to say “it gets better.” But we need to make it better now.
If all you can do is listen, do that. I cannot stress how important listening – or just being there – is.
And we need to make sure everyone knows the second part: Being bullied is not a sign of weakness.
Thanks for reading, everyone.
Note on Comments: I’m usually pretty light on the moderation – so far, I’ve never deleted a comment. I don’t even mind people who insult me personally. However, if you go after my brother, I will stuff your comment up into the place where the sun don’t shine so fast I’ll set a new speed record. Frankly, if you go after any of the bullied kids we talked about – or bullied kids in the abstract – the same thing will happen. And homophobia? Not an option. You have been warned.
Trevor Hotline for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth: 1- 866-488-7386. (Important note: If you are called gay, or harassed for acting/seeming gay, the Trevor hotline will help you even if you don‘t identify as LGBTQ. In other words, the service is not exclusively for LGBTQ teens)
National Hotline for Children and Teens: 1-800-448-3000 (They will help you with bullying problems; sexual, physical or emotional abuse; suicide prevention; school issues; depression etc. They’re wonderful, and very well trained – no matter what your problem, they can help (and if they can’t, they will find someone who can)).
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
If you are being bullied, or if you know someone being bullied, and you don’t know who to talk to, these hotlines will help you. PLEASE call them (or find someone you trust to talk with), even if you think your problem isn’t important, or that it doesn’t count as bullying, or that it’s your fault. Call them.
Unfortunately, these are USA-specific numbers (any suggestions for other countries?) If you know of other resources or other hotlines, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list. I’m particularly frustrated that I can’t find a dedicated national hotline for bullying victims…
And I’m back online, everyone! Sorry for the two week hiatus – as mentioned in my last post, I
am the goddamn Feminist Batwoman was having some health issues, so I took a break from the internet to save the world while wearing an awesome cape while I got better at kicking bad guys.
And now that I’ve finally
defeated the forces of darkness gotten better, I will be posting more in an effort to keep up my cover identity as the billionaire college student and feminist blogger “Culturally Disoriented”
Ahem. Back on the internet! YAY!
everyone else: *crickets*
Gird your loins, everyone. We’re going to talk about kissing. Making out. Embracing. Frenching. Smooching. Swapping spit. Tonsil Tango (my favorite euphemism).
Sadly, we’re not going to talk about fun, consensual, awesome kissing. I’m all for fun, consensual, awesome kissing. But there was no fun, consensual, awesome kissing in Snow White and the Huntsman.
[Warning for MASSIVE SPOILERS]
No, there was only creepy kissing.
Let’s back up, shall we?
I recently saw Snow White and the Huntsman with my brother. And I’m not going to lie: I enjoyed it. Yes I did.
Well, okay. Let’s be a bit more precise about what “enjoyed” means in this context, shall we?
… I was not bored. I was moderately entertained. There were pretty colors. [I have no shame].
Were there lots of deeply problematic moments that made me want to throw my popcorn at the screen?
Was I particularly upset about those problems? As in “stay-up-until-three-in-the-morning-writing-a-blog-post” upset?
Not really. My brother and I had a good discussion afterwards where we unpacked the misogynistic elements of the movie, we both agreed that it wasn’t that great (but that the colors were pretty and Charlize Theron was awesome), I moved on. Frankly, so many movies are not-great and sexist that I don’t have time to get seriously “stay-up-until-three-in-the-morning-writing-a-blog-post” upset about all of them. Or I wouldn’t sleep.
A week after I saw the movie, however, I was reading Batwoman: Elegy (which HOLY SHIT IS INCREDIBLE) when I sat bolt-upright in my bed and exclaimed: “Whoa! There was technically a lesbian kiss in Snow White and the Huntsman!”
Which is when I realized that the technically-lesbian kiss was also the only consensual kiss in the movie. And that while this consensual kiss led to Snow White’s demise, the non-consensual kiss imposed on Snow by the Huntsman… ends up saving her life.
Are you *bleeping* kidding me?
And that, dear reader, is when I got angry enough to write a blog post.
Because Kissing: Snow White and the Huntsman is Doing. It. Wrong.
I’ll start by recapping all the kisses experienced by the protagonist, Snow White. I think you’ll see the creepiness emerging pretty quickly.
(it should be noted that Snow White’s name is never actually uttered in the movie, so for all I know, she’s called Porky McPorcupine. But Porky McPorcupine takes too long to type, so…]
1. Kiss #1: Snow White goes wandering the woods with her childhood friend, William. They’ve just reunited after a long separation. Snow White decides to kiss William because… he’s her childhood friend and he’s rather attractive? The movie never really makes it clear. But she decides to kiss him. Hurrah! Good for you, Snow White, for expressing desire and going after the things you want (in a safe/consensual manner)
No. Not good for you, Snow White. Don’t you know that a lady NEVER initiates a kiss? And that to do so is grounds for horrible punishment?
Because unfortunately for Snow White, William is actually NOT William, but Raveena (the Queen) in a very clever disguise. Which is why I consider this a lesbian kiss: it is, in fact, between two women (although only one of the women is aware of that fact). After Fake William and Snow White kiss, William continues the flirtation by offering Snow White an apple. Snow White, who has clearly never read a fairy tale in her life, takes a bite of the apple… and starts dying. Fake William taunts her, transforms back into Raveena, and tries to cut out her heart.
And that, Snow White, is why a lady NEVER initiates a kiss. [Who do you think you are, a man?]
2. Kiss #2: Fortunately for Snow White, the two ruggedly attractive gentlemen in her escort – the Huntsman and the Real William – burst out of the forest and chase off the Very Well Dressed Raveena. Unfortunately, Snow White is still dying, and has lost almost all consciousness.
Which, for some reason, prompts the Real William to kiss her.
I can’t even –
3. Kiss #3: Snow White is dead. She’s been placed on a bier in a church (because she’s pure) and dressed up in a white gown (because she’s pure). The Huntsman comes in, and explains to Snow White that he loves her because she reminds him so much of his dead wife.
Because that’s not creepy at all.
Then the Huntsman kisses the (dead) Snow White on the lips and leaves.
NOT CREEPY AT ALL.
A few minutes later, Snow White wakes up – presumably resurrected by the Huntsman’s kiss – and proceeds to defeat the Evil Queen.
As of which point, there is no more kissing (thank Maud)
On the other hand, there’s also no moment when Snow White turns to the Huntsman and says “So, the kissing thing. I’m not necessarily opposed, but… that was creepy. Also: your dead wife? Really?”
I’m sure you’ve caught on to the basic problem, right? Yes?
There is exactly one consensual kiss in this movie, and that’s the one where Snow White kisses Fake William. She kisses him. She expresses desire. She is an active participant. The kiss is obviously consensual: both women are awake, alive and participating.
And as a result of this kiss – the one Snow White actually wants and consents to – Snow White dies.
The kiss is also proven meaningless when we realize that Fake William is actually Raveena, who only kissed Snow White in order to trick her into eating the apple.
Snow White neither consents nor participates in the two other kisses because she’s dead or dying.William actually kisses her as she’s dying, which is particularly horrifying.
Pro tip #1: If you’ve got an unrequited crush on someone, the moment of their death is not an appropriate time to tell them. And it’s especially not an appropriate time to kiss them. What if they don’t like you? What if they hate you? Then the last moment of their life is spent being kissed by someone they despise. What if they want to spend their dying moments thinking about their family? You’ve just coopted their death for your own purposes. And what if they DO return your affections? Then they die going “aww, shit, if I’d known earlier”…
Great job, Casanova. No, really.
Pro tip #2: If the person you are kissing is unconscious, asleep, dead or dying, you are doing it wrong.
This can all be summed up as: if the person you are kissing is incapable of saying “No” [or of using sign language to say “No,” or of pushing you away, or of clonking you on the head with a baseball bat] to your advances, then you are doing it wrong.
In the movie world, however, kissing an unconscious woman who is completely and utterly unable to consent is romantic.
Neither William nor the Huntsman have any idea of whether Snow White has romantic (or sexual) feelings towards them. But remember, everyone. Snow White’s desires do not matter. Neither man gives them a moment’s thought. Only their desire – and their pain – is important.
Because William and the Huntsman love Snow White. So it’s fine for them to use her body in order to express their grief and thwarted love. It’s even romantic.
And hey! One of these non-consensual kisses saves Snow White from death. So it’s totally okay! Am I right?
Yeah, no. Not romantic. Creepy. And extraordinarily problematic
Pro-tip #3: If there is no way for someone to convey that they are interested in kissing you, do not kiss them. No matter how much you long/love/lust for them. If you kiss them anyways, you are doing it wrong.
[There is an exception to this: if you are in a long term romantic relationship with someone and they die. If your partner dies, and you two have talked about consent/negotiated your boundaries, and you thus have a fairly good idea of whether they would mind being kissed post-death… you’re fine. However, this is not true of either William or the Huntsman. They have absolutely no idea how Snow White feels about them, or whether she would consent to being kissed. They are also not in a romantic relationship with her]
Pro-Tip #4: In the Real World, kissing someone who is unconscious (or otherwise unable to consent) is sexual assault. And in fact, many people in the Real World are raped or assaulted while they are asleep/unconscious. Now, I know that the Ruggedly Handsome William and the Huntsman are not rapists (of course not! They’re ruggedly handsome!). But if the way you’re kissing someone closely resembles rape/sexual assault, you’re doing it wrong.
Now, let’s be fair. There are certain moments of sexual assault in Snow White and the Huntsman that are NOT portrayed in a positive light.
Near the beginning of the movie, we find out that Queen Raveena’s brother Finn often visits Snow White in her cell and watches her while she sleeps. When he comes to take Snow White to Raveena, he sits next to her prone body and caresses her chest. We’re obviously meant to read him as a sexual predator. We’re also obviously meant to fear that he will assault or rape Snow White.
This scene is, in almost every way, a mirror to William and the Huntsman kissing Snow White.
Man’s desire for woman? Check. Lack of female consent? Check. Woman unconscious or otherwise unable to make an active choice? Check.
But unlike the Huntsman and William, Finn is neither young nor conventionally attractive. He is also evil (as evidenced by the fact that he is neither young nor conventionally attractive)
Obviously, since Finn is not a ruggedly handsome/good-hearted young man, his advances towards Snow White [who is unable to consent because she’s in prison and he’s her JAILER] are assault.
Pro-tip #5: If you assume that being conventionally attractive/young/not evil means that everyone automatically WANTS to kiss you, and so therefore they have obviously consented, and so therefore it is okay for you to kiss them when they are unconscious/dead, you are doing it wrong.
Even if you are Ruggedly Handsome, everyone does not automatically want you to kiss them. I know. This is a shock.
Pro-tip #6: Just because you are conventionally attractive and/or Young and/or Not Evil, does not mean you are unable to sexually assault someone. No. Really. I know this comes as a shock to you, but rapists/assaulters are not all Ugly/Old/Evil. In other words: even if you are conventionally attractive and/or young and/or a “Good Person,” kissing someone who cannot consent is not okay. And you are doing it wrong.
Let us recapsulate all of the Very Important Lessons the movie puts forward about kissing:
1. Female consent and female desire are deadly and disgusting. When Snow White shows real desire and real agency, it bites her in the ass.
2. As a corollary, two women kissing is deadly and disgusting, and can only happen because one woman is trying to kill the other. Female desire, everyone. Have I mentioned how Deadly and Disgusting it is?
3. Only Evil and Not-Conventionally-Attractive Men can sexually assault someone.
4. It is impossible for Good and Ruggedly Handsome Men to sexually assault someone.
5. A Ruggedly Handsome Man’s Desire for a Woman, coupled with that same woman’s Lack of Consent is very romantic, and will bring around salvation/resurrection.
So ladies, remember. Don’t show desire. Don’t kiss people you’re interested in. Real love only comes when a (handsome) man expresses his desire for you (while also disregarding your agency).
If a not-handsome man kisses you while also disregarding your agency, on the other hand, that is ASSAULT, and it’s not okay.
This is not a mixed message AT ALL.
Pro-tip #I Can’t Even Count Anymore: Assault is not romantic. Assault is not attractive.
You know what’s romantic?
You know what’s attractive?
I’m going to say it again, because frankly, it bears repeating:
Loving someone does not give you permission to disregard their feelings, or their right to make a choice. If your beloved is, for some reason, unable to make a choice (because they’re asleep/unconscious/dead) well, that’s unfortunate. But you still don’t get to violate their consent. That the movie portrays male love as a blanket excuse for violating a woman’s right of consent is extraordinarily problematic.
Here’s what’s really ironic:
The movie proves the Evil Queen Raveena right.
Raveena, after all, becomes “evil” because she believes that men use women to serve their own desires while disregarding any desire the women may have.
Which is exactly what happens when the Huntsman and William use Snow White’s unconscious body to satisfy their own desires (thwarted love! grief! pain!), and then never bother to apologize when she wakes up, or to ask her how she feels about either of them. And which is exactly what the movie does to Snow White, when it refuses to allow her a reaction to William and the Huntsman’s actions.
In other words: men’s desires are still The Most Important Thing, women’s desires are Still Unimportant and Queen Raveena is Still Right.
Yes, Raveena’s whole “let’s-impoverish-the-people” thing is bad. And I’m not okay with Raveena murdering people.
But Raveena isn’t defeated because she’s wrong. She’s defeated because a more desirable woman appears. Snow White even tells her that she’s lost because she isn’t “the fairest” anymore.
Pro-tip #One Billion: If the movie is trying to prove that men don’t use women/disregard women’s desires, then it is doing it wrong.
Why does this bother me so much? I mean, besides the fact that I’m an angry feminist, and I must complain about all misogyny.
It bothers me because this movie’s portrayal of romance isn’t the exception. It’s the norm. Taken to an extreme, sure. But it’s still the norm.
If it wasn’t the norm, more reviewers would have remarked on it. More people would have pointed it out. But no mainstream reviewers did. Because that’s just the way things are.
It bothers me because, at a time when sex-education is terrible, people learn about desire, relationships and sex from movies (and assorted cultural narratives). And when, over and over again, cultural narratives show that assault is romantic, that female consent is irrelevant and female desire is dangerous… it has an effect.
It bothers me because every time I come out of a movie theater with my younger brother, we have to have a little chat where we deconstruct the Terrible Messages. Because even though I know my brother is smart, and respectful, and he cares about consent and about people’s boundaries…
It has an effect.
Hell, it had an effect on me.
In my admittedly VERY limited experience with relationships/sex/desire etc., the hardest question for me to ask is: What do I want?
And right here, right now, as a feminist who thinks female desire and consent are very important… I feel like a terrible person for even typing that question.
Because what does it matter what I want?
On the other hand, I’ve never had a problem considering what guys want. And I never had a problem putting men’s desires above my own.
Those pro-tips about consent and desire? I need to learn them too.
In fact, let’s have a review, shall we? Because I clearly need the review as much as anyone else.
1. If your partner is Awake, Conscious, Able to Consenting AND (obviously) Consenting
Congratulations! You are Doing It Right!
2. If your partner is Unconscious, Unresponsive, Or Otherwise Unable To Consent:
Sorry, my friend, but you are Doing It Wrong.
And you should stop Doing It Wrong.
This has been a lesson about how to Kiss Properly from Your Friendly Neighborhood Feminist
Batwoman Blogger. Pass it along.
Frankly, the movie would have been a lot better if, when Raveena and Snow White kissed (in a consensual manner), the two of them realized they were secretly attracted to each other.
Then they would hash out their differences over a marriage contract; we’d get a kingdom ruled by two badass queens in a lesbian relationship, and William and the Huntsman could go… take a hike.
Or, you know, engage in some Consensual Tonsil Tango of their own.
It would have been a much more interesting and nuanced movie.
And less rapey.
I would appreciate less rapey.
Maybe in 50 years, someone will remake the movie and use this scenario.* Now that’s a movie I’d pay to see!
*[I’m not holding my breath]
This morning my brother and my stepsister woke up at five (am) to – and I quote – “work on their abs.” Because they’re going to a waterpark today, and they need to look good in their swimsuits.
I will refrain from comment. At least they didn’t wake me up. [Thank Maud for small mercies]
Anyways! Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Now that WisCon is over – and now that I’ve gotten a couple social-justice related rants out of the way – it’s time to move back to what really matters in life: giant lists of books.
Because why did I start blogging if not to inflict my bizarre reading taste on the public? [Let us ignore the fact that “the public” right now is my brother and a few devoted friends]
In spite of the fact that this month included: the return of the “four times a week” migraines (joy), a transnational move, a Feminist Science Fiction Convention and at least four gazillion doctor’s appointments (if one more person asks me for my family medical history, I’m going to throw myself off a cliff), I did manage to do some decent reading. HURRAH!
Twelve books! Woo! Five better than last month! (yes, yes in fact I am ridiculously competitive, why do you ask?)
Reviews follow the list:
1. A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire
2. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
3. Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire
4. The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne Valente
5. The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan
6. Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger
7. The Orphans Tales: In the Cities of Coins and Spices by Catherynne Valente
8. The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
9. Chicks Dig Time Lords ed. by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea
10. Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston
11. The WisCon Chronicles Volume 6: Futures of Feminism and Fandom ed. by Alexis Lothian
12. Impolitic! by Andrea Hairston and Debbie Notkin
[Fair warning: the longer the summer goes on, the longer these lists are likely to get. I think my record last year was 22 books in a month]
This is a very WisCon inspired list – seven of the books (The Orphan’s Tales, Shine Coconut Moon, Chicks Dig Time Lords, Redwood and Wildfire, The WisCon Chronicles and Impolitic!) were read in anticipation of the convention.
I’ve talked about Redwood and Wildfire, The WisCon Chronicles and Impolitic! at other points during my WisCon recaps, so I won’t go over those again here. Because yes, I do take pity on my devoted readers. I will say that all three books are fantastic and well worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in WisCon, or the Tiptree Award.
WisCon also inspired a rare event at the House of Disorientation: two re-reads. Yes, in fact, I have already read both The Orphan’s Tales: The Night Garden and The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coins and Spices. But I presented a paper about the series at WisCon, so I needed to re-read them for research [I have over thirty pages of notes. Have mercy upon me]. If you’ve never read Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, you really should. They’re some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking books I’ve read in the past few years. Plus, Valente is an incredible prose writer, and her style has never been better.It’s quite difficult to explain what the series is about, so I’m going to cop to the very-basic and somewhat-inaccurate description: it’s a feminist retelling of One Thousand and One Nights.
The Orphan’s Tales are also tailor-made to my interests – they explore gender, bodies, monstrosity, mythology, storytelling, and above all, the concept of belonging. And part of the reason I love them so much is that the books aren’t a critique of fairy tales – they’re a reconstruction of tales along feminist lines. The books show us how stories could be different – they’re rebuilding an entire tradition from the ground up – which I think is arguably harder than just deconstructing a genre.
And the last scene of the last book makes me cry every time. It’s – you know the last two scenes of Lost? When Jack walks into the church and sees all the castaways again, and he remembers? And if you’re me, you completely lose it? Yeah. It’s like that. *sniff*
Okay, let’s move onto a happier note, shall we? [Sorry – the final scene of Lost always gets to me]
Seanan McGuire! Seanan McGuire is always a happier note.
When I discovered Mira Grant’s work, I wanted to read all her books. ALL her books. Unfortunately, there was only one them out at the time. Whoops. [There are now three books. Yay!] So I was thrilled to discover that Mira Grant was a pseudonym for author Seanan McGuire, who had published LOTS of books.
After reading the first book of McGuire’s popular October Daye urban fantasy series, Rosemary and Rue, however, I was… underwhelmed. It was good, sure. But it didn’t quite work for me.
And then I read the second book, A Local Habitation.
HOLY FREAKING MAUD I MUST READ ALL THE BOOKS NOW! NOW! WHERE ARE THEY? WHEREEEE???? I NEED THEM NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! I MUST HAVE THEM OR I WILL –
Hem. I, uh, really liked the second book. As in: forgoing food and sleep in order to finish reading it. As in: reading it on the plane (which is a terrible idea, since I get motion sickness). As in – okay, I need to stop with the fangirl SQUEE. Calm down, C.D. Remember that people read this thing. It’s public. Get a grip.
So, er, plot summary. Yes. I can write cogent thoughts.
The October Daye series centers on October “Toby” Daye, the only changeling (half-human, half-faery) to have earned Knighthood. She’s also a faery detective operating out of San Francisco. In A Local Habitation, Toby’s liege lord, Sylvester, sends her to the County of Tames Lightning (Fremont,CA), to check on his niece, the CEO of a computer games company.
And after Toby arrives, the county is suddenly cut off from other Fae domains, and employees begin to die, one by one.
I love these sort of tense, psychological, edge-of-your-seat narratives, and McGuire writes them like none other. Her characters are fantastic – Toby alone is a masterclass of a character, one of the best urban fantasy heroines I’ve ever encountered. Add to that McGuire’s portrayal of Faery politics, her exploration of the Faery world, and the computer-science-magic that emerges near the end (a dryad uploaded into a computer, for example), and A Local Habitation is sheer, frackin’ brilliance.
Oh, and it’s terrifying.
Also, as your resident Literature student nerd, I should point out that all the titles of the October Daye series are taken from Shakespeare’s Plays.
Rosemary and Rue – Hamlet
An Artificial Habitation – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Literature nerd alert, everyone!
I also read Discount Armageddon, the first book of Seanan McGuire’s new urban fantasy series (Incryptid).
The protagonist, Verity Price, comes from a long line of cryptozoologists – people who study and protect creatures whose existence has not yet been proven (also known as monsters). But Verity only wants to do one thing in life: dance. So she moves to New York to pursue a ballroom dancing career.
But don’t let the sequins and the high heels fool you. Anyone who can high kick over their head is someone you don’t want to mess with. Verity straps guns and daggers under her dance costume, and she knows enough about the lifecycle of unicorns to scare off a ghoul.
So when a professional monster-hunter shows up in the city and monsters begin to disappear, Verity is ready.
And the result is awesome. Discount Armageddon is the most entertaining of McGuire’s work so far – it’s sheer, ridiculous fun.
One of McGuire’s best traits as a writer – both as Seanan McGuire, and as Mira Grant – is her humor, which laces throughout all her work. In Armageddon, McGuire’s humor isn’t a sidenote, it’s front and center. I could not stop laughing.
“When in doubt, play dead. Well, unless you might be dealing with a ghoul, or a basilisk, or something else that likes its meat a little ripe. Actually, when in doubt, just start shooting.” (44)
“I really don’t think you should put your hand inside the manticore, dear. You don’t know where it’s been” (1)
“Mother nature is a freaky lady who probably created pot so she could spend all her time smoking it.”
Verdict? Fantastic. Like Buffy the Vampire slayer on steroids – if Buffy were protecting the vampires. Can’t wait for the next book.
One of my most anticipated reads of the month was The Killing Moon, the first book of N.K. Jemisin’s new series (Dreamblood).
I became an instant fan of NK Jemisin after reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms last year, and I’m convinced that the Inheritance series is one of the most best and most original epic fantasy trilogies to come out in the past ten years. So naturally, when I saw The Killing Moon was available a few days earlier than expected in my local bookstore, I bought it.*
(and by “bought it,” I mean “I started caressing it and murmuring “my precious” over and over, until security asked what was wrong”)
Needless to say, I had very high expectations.
Blown. Out. The. Park.
Seriously, I need to start reading some bad books, or people are going to be convinced that I love everything. I really don’t.
But equally seriously: The Killing Moon is incredible. It’s quite different from the Inheritance trilogy, which is good – I do eventually get bored with authors who are too one-note.
[Spoiler: Ninja Priests. Ninja Priests in the city-state of Gujareeh, on a world with two moons]
In Gujareeh, peace is the highest law. The city worships Hananja, the goddess of dreams. The magic-system is based on dreams, which citizens tithe to the priests of the Hetawa. The priests, in turn, use these dreams to heal, to guide, to soothe and sometimes, to kill. Gatherers – the aforementioned Ninja Priests – bring death to those who are on the verge of dying – but also to those judged corrupt. You don’t die in your sleep in Gujareeh. You are Gathered.
But when Ehiru, a powerful, faithful Gatherer, is sent to Gather Sunnandi, a diplomat from Kisua, he discovers a corruption that taints everything from in Gujareeh.
The world N.K. Jemisin has created is so different, so rich, so well-thought-out, so vibrant and internally consistent, that it feels genuine. Alive. Real. There’s almost no suspension of disbelief necessary, Jemisin’s work is so thorough. And her world is one that isn’t, unlike 90% of epic fantasy secondary worlds, based on a pseudo-european-medieval setting. And hey, I love european-medieval epic fantasy, but damn if it’s not refreshing to see something else for a change. And damn if it’s not refreshing to see something so fantastically well-constructed. We’re so used to medieval settings, we stop noticing how flimsy a lot of the world-building is. Jemisin’s is so superior that it highlights the fault lines in other works. With this book, I have little hesitation in saying that Jemisin is the most original world-builder we have working currently. She’s also one of the most original writers of magic we have working currently – an entire system built on dreams and dream theory? Really? Whoa.
The characters and their trials are equally well-depicted. Although I don’t have space to discuss these in great detail, I would like to briefly highlight what for me was the heart of the book: the relationship between Ehiru and his gatherer-apprentice Nijiri. Although the two are deeply loyal to one another, there are dark elements to the relationship. Ehiru starts to lose control of his magic about halfway through the book, and asks Nijiri to Gather him – to kill him – before Ehiru himself becomes corrupt. Meanwhile, Nijiri is in love with Ehiru. Ehiru is aware of this, and relies on Nijiri’s love, despite not being able to reciprocate it (Gatherers are celibate). That Ehiru uses Nijiri’s love for him to (try) to convince Nijiri to kill him is a fascinating, and repelling, dynamic. This is one of the book’s great strengths – the characters (and the city’s) ambiguous, complex morality.
I’ll leave the final word to my brother, who read the book right after I did.
“God, I love N.K. Jemisin so much!”
This seems to be my month for fantasy – now that I’m looking over the list, it’s evident that I read almost no science fiction. The Cloud Roads is sort of science fiction, if you squint and look at it sideways. But everything else is fantasy (or just literary). With the possible exception of Chicks Dig Time Lords, which is about science fiction (although it’s nonfictional).
Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It is a collection of interviews, essays and cartoons written by female fans of Doctor Who. The contributors examine their relationship with fandom, and their love of the series.
Now, I’ve never watched Doctor Who (I know, I know. It’s on the to-do list). And I still found this book immensely entertaining and insightful. As a fan, I love watching other fans indulge in SQUEE. As a female fan, I’m always interested in seeing how women engage with fandoms that are typically viewed as “male.” And as a science fiction fan, I always like looking at analysis of science fiction shows! So I was quite pleased. SQUEE, science fiction and gender analysis all wrapped up in one shiny package: it’s like my birthday came early.
The book is extremely well-edited – it varies in both tone and content, so it never feels repetitive or one-note. There are essays that are pure fannish SQUEE. There are essays that address the specific trials and tribulations of female fans. There are essays dissecting particularly Doctor Who companions. There are near-academic essays. There are fun stories. There are sad stories. There are interviews with Who Actresses and writers. There’s a discussion of costuming at Doctor Who conventions. There’s even a comic (from the creators of Torchwood Babiez)
Chicks Dig Time Lords won a Hugo Award last year – and now that I’ve read it, all I can say is: Well deserved.
Before I close, a quick shoutout to the books I’m not reviewing in depth, but that I still loved: Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon (great, snarky, dark YA; fantastic narrator; cannot wait to read the next book) and Martha Wells’ The Cloud Roads (old-fashioned fantasy in the best possible way; wonderful prose; interesting social dynamics)
And that’s it for May! I’m already well into June reading, and I’ve tentatively titled this “The Month of All The Incest” – because seriously, three books, all with incest. What’s going on?
But the books are good, so there’s that!
Finally, my self-policing statistics (for gender and race):
14 authors (or editors)
14 women (I swear, this was not intentional).
10 white editors/authors
4 People of Color editors/Authors
(better than last month)
[This post is a companion piece of sorts to my “How Power Rangers Made Me a Feminist” post, although you don’t need to have read that post to read this one. In the Power Rangers post, I discussed how sexism in TV shows had a negative effect on me growing up, while in this post, I discuss how the awesome books I read when I was a kid had a good effect on me as I grew up. You see, I don’t hate everything! Just the terrible stuff]
I never wanted to be a boy.
And it turns out, that’s somewhat of an unusual experience.
Back during my finals season (*shudder*), a series of interrelated blog posts penned by female speculative fiction authors went up. First it was Stina Leicht. Then Kate Elliot. Then Kirstyn McDermott. and N.K. Jemisin. There are probably more I missed. I was, of course, dying of finals, so I couldn’t do anything more than gather links. But there was something so powerful, and so disturbing, about these women’s stories, that I kept on going back to them.
Let’s see if you can spot the common thread, shall we?
Stina Leicht: “[Girls] are barraged with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place for them specifically at an early age. I have memories of such information filtering down to me at age eight through ten. So much so, that I went through a phase of denial. I took on male behaviors, thinking that would make me safe. (I was a tomboy.) I also went through a phase of not wanting to be female (…) because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females.”
Kirstyn McDermott: “I was a tomboy for most of my childhood. Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who I can’t ever remember saying that I couldn’t/shouldn’t do something or like something or be something just because I was a girl […] I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. Although I didn’t think I ever consciously took that on board when I was a kid . . . I reckon it did manage to seep in. And I reckon I reacted to it just the way Stina Leicht did, by rebelling against everything girlish[…] Because being a girl isn’t safe.”
Kate Elliot (guest-posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “What I saw was that the things I yearned for–adventure, travel, sword fights, the excitement engaged in by characters in the fiction I loved to read–and the things I had–ambition to strive for lofty goals, an inner drive, a questing mind that wanted to discover–were things that society and literature and film told me were reserved for boys. When I was in 7th grade and twelve years old, my Language Arts teacher […] gave us a questionnaire of “fill in the blank” questions meant, I suppose, to make us think about our selves and our lives […] The last question was the most open-ended one: “I wish . . . ”
I wrote: I wish I was a boy.
What it meant to me was that it wasn’t worth being a girl.
Being a girl was second-class, even in some ways shameful. Boys got the good things, they were clearly seen to be better, it was obviously better to be a boy, and furthermore, the dreams I had and the desires and hopes were boy dreams, not girl dreams.”
N.K. Jemisin (guest posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “I did what I could to reject the GIRL box whenever I could. To that end I’d started reading science fiction — but never fantasy, because fantasy was girly […] Fantasy was full of women in scraps of stupid-looking armor, being rescued or having relationships or healing people or something. Science fiction was full of men going places and doing things […] Then I clearly remember thinking, but I’m a girl. And that was it. It wasn’t an especially shocking realization, but it was a profound one. In that moment I began to understand: the problem wasn’t that some books were infested with girl cooties; the real problem was my irrational fear of girliness. And myself.”
Did you spot it?
It’s fairly obvious, but I’ll paraphrase it for practicality’s sake. When they were young, these women all went through a period where they wanted to be a boy and/or they hated being a girl.
[Cue Sigmund Freud jumping out and yelling “PENIS ENVY” at the top of his lungs. Calm down, Freud]
I don’t know about other people, but I find these stories very hard to read. To me, they show how, from a very young age, we teach girls to hate themselves, to think of themselves as second class, as worthless, as unsafe. Even smart, strong, successful women like Kate Elliot, N.K. Jemisin, Stina Leicht and Kirstyn McDermott – women who I might (stupidly) expect to have been unaffected by the negative effects of sexism (again, very stupid assumption) – had to go through a long, sometimes painful, phase where they reconciled themselves to their status as women.
And no one should have to reconcile themselves to their gender.
[Quick side-note: Obviously this particular “I want to be a boy” phenomenon is quite different from transgendered people, whose gender identity does not match their birth sex. But transgendered people shouldn’t have to reconcile themselves to their birth sex either; they should be able to safely live as the gender they identify with.//End side note//]
But this phenomenon is not restricted to the four women listed above. If I take a moment to think about it, I can list at least two or three close female friends who have admitted to going through “boy” phases. I can certainly think of more who have deliberately rejected anything “girly.” And then, when I talked to my mother about these stories, she said she’d felt exactly the same way when she was a kid. She’d gone through a phase where she decided she didn’t like being a girl, so she dressed like a boy, talked like a boy and adopted “boy” mannerisms [I saw the pictures. There is proof]. Which shocked the hell out of me, because I’ve always thought my mother was extraordinarily comfortable in the way she expressed her gender identity.
When I think about it, it’s staggeringly common, this desire to be a boy. And on an intellectual level, I completely understand it. Being a girl in our society means not being safe. Being a girl means being judged according to norms which, for all the changes in the past fifty years, are still very traditional. Being a girl means your body is public property. Being a girl means that your rights are a political ping-pong ball; a”hot-button issue.” Being a girl means people feel free to tell you to shut up, sit down and make them a sandwich.
Wanting to be a boy – or at least, not wanting to be a girl – makes total sense.
So why didn’t I ever want to be one?
Because I never did. I’ve thought about this a lot in the past couple weeks, and I cannot, for the life of me, think of any period in my life where I wanted to be a boy. I can’t even think of a period when I really rejected “femininity” (whatever that means) [ Sure, I went through a phase where I decapitated my barbie dolls and buried them in the backyard… but I was always a morbid child]. I have a lot of moments where I wish I were as free as a boy, or where I wish I could walk at night and be safe like a boy, or where I wish that women were paid the same amount as men. But I never wanted to be a boy.
Which is strange. When I was a kid, I read tons of science fiction and epic fantasy – traditionally “male” genres. For years, my greatest ambition was to be – I kid you not – a warrior. I spent hours practicing side kicks against an tree in our backyard. I still have a big heavy stick in my room I used to practice “staff fighting.” Somewhere in my house ( I will not reveal where) is a diary where I recorded my “training” sessions (Hey, don’t judge me, okay? At least I wasn’t plotting the nuclear apocalypse). I wasn’t quite a tomboy, but I was pretty close.
So given how much of my identity was “male” oriented, why didn’t I ever want to be a boy?
On some level, I think I knew, even from a young age, that girls could do anything they wanted to, and the problem wasn’t with girls, it was with people and institutions who didn’t get that. So yes, I could read science fiction as a girl, and yes, I could beat a tree to a pulp as a girl, and there wasn’t anything wrong with me.
But I don’t think this belief came because I was smarter or wiser or better educated than girls who did go through a “I want to be a boy” phase.
I think it was because of books.
Kate Elliot: “After that, at the tender age of 15, I decided I had had enough of there not being anyone like me even in my own stories. I decided to write about girls, about women–about men, too–but women in equal space and equal importance to the story. This was not a small decision. It went against what I saw when I read; it went against received wisdom, especially in adventure stories […] I realized that in my own small way I might help overturn this diminishment of female lives not only by portraying women in diverse ways that allowed women a full range of personalities, occupations, roles, and stories, but also by respecting the centrality and importance of the women’s work so often considered (often by women) trivial, demeaning, and lesser.”
Tamora Pierce: “Why do I write so many strong female characters? When I was a kid, 7-8 books out of all books written for kids through teens had boy heroes. Those that had girl heroes showed them at “feminine” pursuits, or if they were a little feisty, a male hero had to bail them out by book’s end (…) When I encountered fantasy, I had the same problem: virtually no girl heroes. The ones I found, adult women all, settled down, hated other women, or died. I didn’t understand why there were no girls (or those that existed were severely compromised) in the adventure books, so I began to write what I wanted to read: adventure books with girl heroes.”
Kate Elliot and Tamora Pierce didn’t see female characters, so they started writing them. You know who else did that? Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Patricia Wrede, Louise Fitzhugh, N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, Seanan McGuire, Nancy Farmer – the list goes on. And on. There are droves of female authors who grew up reading books with almost no female protagonists, and who turned around and said: “Screw that. I’m writing about chicks.”
And guess who grew up reading those books?
I read Tamora Pierce. I read Robin McKinley. I read Madeleine L’Engle. I read Harriet the Spy and Ella Enchanted and Dealing with Dragons. I read The Babysitter’s Club (yes, The Babysitter’s Club, you gotta problem with that?). I read Nancy Farmer. I devoured Sailor Moon and Yoko Tsuno. I read Hope was Here and Born Confused.
In these books girls were the heroes – all kinds of heroes. They were knights and policewomen, spies and politicians, ordinary students and fashion experts, electricians and caterers, waitresses and magic girls, aliens and historians – oh my!
So if I didn’t see my girlhood as limiting me, it was because in the world of my reading, there were no limits to what a girl could be, or to how she could save the day.
You know why I wanted to be a warrior when I was a kid? Because I was reading Tamora Pierce. You know why I didn’t see being a warrior as a “male” pursuit? Because Tamora Pierce’s warriors were female. Even in the Alanna series, when Alanna was the only female knight, there were other women warriors [Thayet and Buri, to name a few]. So when I was pounding that tree into a pulp, I was doing it in the grand tradition of Keladry of Mindelan, Buriram Tourakom, Alanna the Lioness and Daja Kisubo (although I’m sure none of them would be silly enough to practice kicking on a tree).
Eventually, my warrior ways (god, this is embarrassing. I’m so glad this blog is under a pseudonym) – prompted me to take Tae-Kwon-Do lessons. Which was lovely, except for the fact that the instructors would always try to goad male students by saying:
“Are you going to get a girl beat you?”
[Spoiler warning: Yes]
Or: “You hit like a girl!”
[No shit, Sherlock. I am a girl]
But you know what? Even though that bothered the hell out of me (and it went straight into my growing realization that “Wow, people are kind of sexist”) – I knew better. I knew no one could joust like Keladry of Mindelan or swordfight better than Alanna the Lioness. I knew no one was stealthier than Harriet the Spy or braver than Usagi (AKA: Sailor Moon) or more loyal than Dimple Lala. I knew no one was cleverer than Ella and no one was smarter than Yoko Tsuno.
I knew that there was nothing shameful with being “like a girl.”
And someday, everyone else was going to figure it out.
So to all those authors who grew up wishing to be boys. Who grew up knowing that being a girl was unsafe, that being a girl made you “lesser than.” To all of you who then turned around and said: “Screw this, I’m writing about chicks.” Who said “girl can be the heroes.” Who were brave enough, and strong enough, and determined enough, to fight the good fight. Who told the people who thought there was no market for girl heroes “You’re wrong” and who got those books published anyways.
To all those authors, in short, who made it possible for me to have a shelf upon shelf of fantastic books with smart, strong, independent women as heroes.
I have never wanted to be a boy. I have always been happy to be a girl. And it’s because you showed me that being a girl was great.
And to all those people who say “but it’s just a book/a video game/ a comic book. It’s not real. Everyone knows it’s not real. So it doesn’t affect you. Now stop complaining about the lack of female/queer/people of color/ disabled/etc. characters and go make me a sandwich.”
I say: “You’re wrong. And go make yourself that sandwich. Git.”
[Giant disclaimer: the state of fiction is nowhere near equitable enough, either when it comes to female characters, or to other marginalized character s(queer, people of color, trans, disabled etc.). In fact, even though I read a lot of books with female protagonists as a child, I still read more books with male protagonists (and that was with me actively trying to FIND books with female protagonists). We’re not there yet. But the fight is worth it.]